Food Guidelines

Grain-Free Dog Food and Heart Disease: A Look at the Bigger Picture

You’ve seen the startling (and, quite frankly, misleading and irresponsible) headlines warning dog owners that their grain-free foods could cause heart disease in their furriest family.

A June 27 report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration implicated several pet food brands that were named in veterinarian-reported cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods, many labeled as “grain-free.”

To put the news into perspective, remember there are approximately 77 million pet dogs in the United States. Since 2014, there have been 515 cases of DCM reported, with many of these in breeds already genetically predisposed to the disease. In other words, 0.00067% of dogs developed DCM over the last 6 years, and of that 0.00067%, an unknown number MAY be related to a grain-free diet. And, let’s not forget that DCM was diagnosed and existed in dogs well before grain-free diets became popular.

The sensationalized news has left many pet parents scrambling, worried for the health of their dogs, and rushing en masse to their local pet stores to exchange their dog’s food for something with grains. With that in mind, it’s important to note that allergies to wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, and other grains are far more abundant, affecting at least 10% of all dogs, with intolerances to those grains even more commonplace.

It’s also important to recognize, by digging deeper and reading past the headlines, that it isn’t a lack of grains that could be a factor in the development of DCM in a minuscule percentage of dogs, but rather the foods commonly used in grain-free formulas to replace corn, wheat, soy, and other inexpensive “filler foods” – sort of.

grain-free

In most commercially available grain-free foods, peas and/or lentils, legumes, and potatoes/sweet potatoes are added to recipes. Although studies are incomplete and research continues, early evidence has shown that many of the DCM cases showed insufficient levels of taurine, an amino acid distributed throughout the body with high concentration in certain tissues including heart wall muscles, the eye, and brain. It has been suggested that peas, lentils, and other legumes may affect the body’s ability to properly metabolize taurine, which prompted many of the pet food brands named by the FDA to begin adding supplemental taurine to their recipes in the last several years, despite assertions by the FDA and AAFCO (The American Association of Feed Control Officials) that taurine is not an essential amino acid for dogs. Other research has suggested that flea/tick medications and vaccines may also play a role in the development of DCM in dogs.

To further complicate matters, the FDA compiled a list of all 515 reports of dilated cardiomyopathy cases submitted between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019. A closer look at this list reveals reports submitted by both veterinarians and by dog owners. In some cases, DCM was diagnosed while in others, unknown or unidentified heart disease is named. Many reported cases fed grain-included dog foods.

In all, 16 brands were named in the FDA’s final report. Of those brands, several have responded to defend their formulations and to ease the minds of their customers.

Champion Pet Foods, the makers of Acana and Orijen (implicated in 67 and 12 cases of DCM, respectively) released the following statement (in part):

“The FDA’s announcement provides no causative scientific link between DCM and our products, ingredients or grain-free diets as a whole and it is unfortunate that the release of incomplete information is causing confusion among pet lovers about the food they purchase for their pets and the diets they follow.”

Zignature, named in 64 cases, said:

“We conduct years of rigorous research and testing on all products before they are available to the public. This includes ongoing tests on blood metabolites- including whole blood and blood plasma taurine levels, as well as palatability trials, stool quality tests and digestibility trials. This allows us to formulate the safest and most nutritious pet foods out there today…

…While taurine has always been included in our diets, new studies have shown that extra taurine is important for dogs’ cardiovascular health. Zignature further supplements all of its diets with extra taurine and L-Carnitine, providing some of the highest levels of taurine available in the industry.”

Taste of the Wild, named in 53 cases, released the following statement:

Like the FDA and pet owners like you, we are concerned about the reported cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs that are not genetically predisposed to the condition. The FDA announced on June 27 that they have received 515 reported cases of DCM in dogs as they continue to study potential connections between DCM and all types of diets, including diets without grain (grain-free). Fifty-three dogs were fed a Taste of the Wild food.

To date, the FDA still has not found any science-based causes to link grain-free diets — including Taste of the Wild — to DCM. As they note, it is a complex issue with numerous factors to consider, such as breeds that have a genetic predisposition for developing DCM. We continue to monitor this issue closely and support ongoing research efforts...

We encourage you to contact us with any questions or concerns. In the meantime, because our pets mean a lot to us and no definitive cause has yet been identified, there is high confusion and concern, resulting in incorrect information in the media and social media. We, like the FDA, are focusing on science-based findings and information, and we encourage you to do so as well.

Earthborn Holistic, named in 32 cases of DCM, released the following statement:

“We have reviewed the FDA’s recent report regarding grain-free pet foods and a potential link to DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy). This report does not provide any scientific findings linking nutrition and DCM. Rather, FDA is simply attempting to gain more information as part of its evaluation process. Congenital heart disease has been recognized in 0.56% to 0.85% of dogs for many years (Detweiler and Patterson, 1965). The report only touches upon the genetic or congenital prevalence of the disease, hinting that the disease may have a nutritional component without suggesting a nutritional solution. It has been recognized that taurine, an amino acid, may be helpful for dogs with the full onset of DCM. Since their introduction, we’ve fortified our grain-free recipes with taurine, amino acids, and L-Carnitine as prudent nutritional considerations. Midwestern Pet Foods’ utmost priority is to provide safe, high-quality nutrition. Our recipes are created by a board certified animal nutritionist (Ph.D.), use only FDA permitted ingredients and make nutritional claims permissible by the FDA. Additionally, our recipes closely follow FDA sanctioned nutrient profiles published by AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials).

Blue Buffalo, named in 31 cases, said:

Last week, the FDA released a new statement regarding its ongoing investigation into reports of canine DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy). In this report, the FDA continues to state that there has been no definitive link between feeding a particular diet and the development of DCM.  As a wholesome natural brand created by pet parents for pet parents, we at Blue Buffalo wanted to update you on this FDA statement and give you more information on what Blue Buffalo is doing in response to the ongoing study of canine DCM.

Blue Buffalo has been actively working with the FDA and the Pet Food Institute, the leading pet food industry association that represents over 98% of US pet food and treats, to study this issue, and Blue Buffalo scientists have come together with other pet food makers to further advance our understanding of canine DCM and its causes.

Fromm, named in 24 cases, said:

The FDA investigation acknowledges that the potential association between dietary characteristics and DCM is complex and may involve multiple factors outside of diet alone including genetics and metabolism. While the complexity of DCM and other metabolic factors makes it difficult to substantiate causation to specific diets, ingredients, or ingredient interactions, we take this matter seriously and will continue to monitor all information as the FDA investigation progresses.

Fromm’s dedication to the health and nutrition of animals has been the bedrock of our brand since 1904. Since 1949, we have been producing complete and balanced foods for dogs. At times, this includes the supplementation of essential amino acids in addition to the vitamins and minerals needed for balanced nutrition. In regard to taurine deficiency and the potential for increased risk of diet-related DCM, all From recipes, including both grain-free and grain-in, are supplemented with taurine. Additionally, all of our foods contain ample levels of cysteine and methionine which dogs use to metabolize their own taurine.

Merrick, named in 16 cases of DCM, released the following statement:

The FDA has been investigating a potential link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). As a result of the most recent update, we learned that several pet parents who feed their dog a Merrick diet have reported a case to the FDA. The FDA cannot attest to whether these case reports are linked to diet, but we are working with them to learn more. As of today, the nature of a possible connection between food and DCM in dogs has not been determined.

We love our pets and are dedicated to making the safest and highest-quality food for them. All our protein-rich diets, including those that are grain-free, are formulated to be complete and balanced and meet or exceed the nutritional guidelines set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). We fully support the FDA’s efforts to research any potential links between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and are committed to working with the FDA and veterinarians to better understand this complex topic. 

California Natural was named in 15 reported cases of DCM, but the brand was dissolved and California Natural products have not been manufactured or available to the public since 2015.

Natural Balance, also named in 15 cases, said:

New studies have shown that extra Taurine is imperative for Cardiovascular Health in dogs, especially in Large and Giant Breeds. Natural Balance® has always added Taurine to our Ultra Premium Dog Food.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is one of the most common acquired cardiovascular diseases in dogs. In cats, a diet deficient in taurine clearly results in DCM, but in dogs, the need for dietary taurine has not been generally recognized because dogs are known to be able to synthesize taurine from the sulfur amino acids cysteine and methionine.

While it’s important that EVERY health concern, especially those that may be linked to the food we feed our dogs every day, be addressed, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Remember, of the 77 million pet dogs in the U.S., only 515 were reported to the FDA under suspicion of dietary-related DCM.

Canine cancers affect nearly 50% of dogs.
Joint disease and arthritis affect eventually affect nearly 100% of all dogs.
One in every 300 dogs will develop Diabetes.
One in every 149,515 dogs might develop DCM as a result of their diet… or not.

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