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Grain-Free Diets Can Lead To Canine Heart Disease

By Dr. Bucky Bearden

Recently, I have seen several patients come in with lethargy, exercise intolerance, weakness in the rear end, syncope, increased respiration rate at rest,  etc. Many of these clients are diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy, or DCM, which is a canine heart disorder that leads to reduced heart pumping function and increased heart size.  What do many of them have in common? They had been fed a grain-free diet. 

Where It Started

Many pet owners try out a grain-free diet after seeing it advertised, thinking their dogs have a food allergy to grain, or because they’ve been told it can help their dog’s coat or skin look nice. Some owners believe a grain-free diet will provide improvement in some intestinal issues, but equally we have seen improved intestinal issues by taking dogs OFF of grain free diets. A number of recent studies have shown that pet foods labeled grain-free and mainly those containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients are what has  lead to increased cases of DCM.  

Food Allergies Are A Small Percentage

Veterinarians believe that food allergies are only about 15-18% of all of the allergies. This means less than one in five itchy dogs have food allergies.  Most causes of food allergies are the protein source, chicken, beef, egg, etc. and not the carbohydrate source. This can only be diagnosed by doing a strict food trial.  We assume that it is a deficiency in an amino acid called Taurine, but some of the affected dogs did have normal Taurine so it could be some interaction at the cellular level.  

All Breeds Are Being Affected

Typically DCM is genetically, a Doberman Pincher problem, and normally, we rarely see Cardiomyopathy in other breeds.  At the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at UC Davis there was a sudden up tick in Golden Retrievers. 23 out of the 24 with clinical signs of DCM were on grain free diets.  Personally, we have seen about 7 cases that were all different breeds mostly large to very large breeds.  We have lost 5 of the 7, two are completely recovered.  The medication used to treat the heart failure is very expensive especially for a very large dog.

What You Should Do

If you have been feeding your dog a grain-free diet and feel concerned, you should switch the food to a more reputable food that has corn or barley or another grain source. We always recommend only very reputable dog food companies that have vast research regarding pet nutrition.  Typical change should be done over a few days to allow the dog to adjust to the new food. A few of these reputable companies are:

  • Hill’s Science Diet
  • Royal Canin
  • ProPlan 

If you think your dog may be showing symptoms of side effects from a grain-free diet, you really should bring your dog in to be examined and let us know that your dog has been eating grain-free. A Pro BNP (Brain natriuretic peptide) that is increased when the heart is under stress can usually be run over night.  An echocardiogram can also be performed, which would tell us how thick the ventricular walls are and how effectively the heart is functioning.

Depending on the results, your dog can be treated by changing the diet/adding taurine and using medications for heart failure if needed.  Most pet’s symptoms can improve, if diagnosed quickly. If you think your pet is suffering the effects of a grain-free diet, schedule an appointment today. 

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