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Update: Grain-Free Dog Food and Heart Disease

DCM in dogs the grain-free food debate Ageless Paws blog

A few years ago, the US Food and Drug Administration put out a pretty alarming announcement about the potential link between grain-free diets and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)—a serious condition that can ultimately lead to heart failure in dogs.

That news received a lot of media attention, spurring millions of dog owners to question the safety of what they’re feeding their pets. Around that same time, I discussed this issue with a couple of veterinarians to get their take on it, which you can read here.

Since I wrote that piece, there have been some important updates on this topic that I want to share with you.

Non-Hereditary DCM in Dogs May Have Many Contributing Factors

vet with yellow labrador dog checking for DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy)
Photo credit: © Wavebreak Media Ltd @123rf

The most significant development is the admission by the FDA that non-hereditary DCM in dogs may involve many different factors, just one of which may be diet. And even so, the FDA has acknowledged that they have “no definitive information indicating that [grain-free] diets are inherently unsafe and need to be removed from the market.”

Simply put, the initial concern surrounding the link between grain-free food and DCM in dogs was a little more hyped up than it needed to be—and further investigation has led the FDA to step back a bit from its original position. That’s not to say they have completely exonerated grain-free diets as a cause of DCM in dogs, but the link doesn’t appear to be as worrisome because it’s increasingly clear that a lot of other factors could play a role.

All of this came to light in September 2020 at a virtual forum hosted by Kansas State University. Veterinarians, researchers, pet food industry representatives, and other experts gathered to present research and moderate discussions and Q&As, all aimed to gain a better understanding of the causes of DCM in dogs.

Based on all that was presented, Dr. Steven Solomon, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine (a branch of the FDA that regulates foods and drugs given to animals) issued a new statement in November 2020. In it, he wrote that the development of DCM is much more complex issue that can’t be solely attributed to grain-free diets:

“Historically, DCM has been primarily linked to genetic predisposition in certain breeds, but in the context of these atypical cases, emerging science appears to indicate that non-hereditary DCM is a complex medical condition that may be affected by the interplay of multiple factors such as genetics, underlying medical conditions, and diet.”

Other important variables that need to be considered with DCM in dogs include age, weight, and use of medications.

Additionally, the FDA noted that dietary changes (adding grains back in) may not have any effect on recovery in dogs with DCM, as nearly all dogs in studies received other treatments including supplemental taurine and medications.

Since all the initial data connecting grain-free diets and DCM in dogs weren’t strong enough to warrant any recalls or warnings, Dr. Solomon acknowledged that the “FDA has not taken regulatory action against or declared any specific pet food products unsafe or definitively linked to DCM.”

Research conducted within the past year seems to corroborate this new position. In one study, researchers examined DCM data from 14 canine cardiology practices, and tracked grain-free pet food sales from 2011–2019. They found that the average incidence rate of DCM between 2000–2019 was 3.83%. Meanwhile, between 2011–2019, grain-free food sales increased 500%. So…more dogs than ever eating grain free, but no tremendous spikes in DCM during that time, as you would expect to see if grain-free foods were definitively a cause of this disease. As a result, they say these data “do not support overall increased DCM incidence, or a correlation with grain-free pet food sales.”

Of course, Dr. Solomon said additional research into ingredient levels and sourcing, nutrient bioavailability, and other factors need to be further examined. This includes research into pulse ingredients (dried legumes like lentils, peas, and chickpeas), which Dr. Solomon said are not inherently dangerous, but tend to be included to a higher degree in grain-free foods.

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What Should You Do Now?

Dr. Solomon concluded in this November statement: “If there is one point I want to drive home, it’s that the best thing you as a pet owner can do is to talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s dietary needs based on their health and medical history.”

I could not agree more.

Some people do well on a grain-free diet and others don’t. Some thrive on a ketogenic diet while others feel terrible. Vegetarian diets make some people feel energized and alive, while others feel lethargic and sick if they avoid meat.

The same can be said for dogs. All dogs need quality sources of protein in their diets; that’s an undisputed fact. But not all dogs need or thrive on diets that include grains. Some experience better joint and overall health when grains are removed, but others do better when grains like barley and rice are included in their meals. Like humans, dogs often have very unique nutritional needs based on breed, genetics, underlying medical conditions, obesity/weight problems, and many other factors.

If you have any questions or concerns about what type of diet your dog should be on, talk to your veterinarian, who will examine all facets of your dog’s health and genetic makeup to help you decide.

Finally, I’ll conclude by saying that it’s not a bad idea to proactively protect your dog’s heart through not only proper nutrition but supplementation if necessary. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) may be especially beneficial. This nutrient is essential for the production of energy, which is why it is so important for the heart—an organ that requires an enormous amount of energy!

Salmon, sardines, and organ and muscle meats—which your dog should be getting from his regular diet—are the best food sources. But providing freeze dried pet treats made with these meats or fish, or adding a food topper made with salmon or chicken are excellent ways to add a little extra CoQ10—and assurance that your furry friend’s heart is as healthy as possible.

From my heart to yours,

Dr. Stephen Sinatra signature

PS. Get pet health advice, exclusive special offers, new product announcements and more when you sign up below to receive my Ageless Paws weekly emails – new subscribers will receive a promo code to save 10% on their first order!

*This blog was developed with Veterinarian Dana Wilhite, DVM to help educate pet owners.

References:

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Top photo credit: ©Damedeeso @ 123rf

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