Pet Talk: Are grain-free diets bad for your dog’s heart? |

Pet Talk: Are grain-free diets bad for your dog’s heart?

by Stephen Sheldon, DVM
Pet Talk
Grain-free diets have proven to be very harmful to pets.
Special to the Daily

Smokey came in to the hospital with a failing heart. The doctor who administered the echo and diagnosed dilated cardiomyopathy asked me, “Does he eat a grain-free diet?” After contacting the owners and answering “yes,” she told me this is the hottest area in veterinary medicine today: grain-free diets are being studied as a cause of heart failure in dogs.

The FDA published this alert on Sunday, July 12:

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is alerting pet owners and veterinary professionals about reports of DCM in dogs eating certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds or potatoes as main ingredients. … The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network … are investigating this potential association.”

Dietary related diseases in pets are kind of unique. Humans eat such a varied diet that we rarely have issues, even if we eliminate a single ingredient, such as grain. But pets often eat the same commercially prepared diet their entire lives. Therefore, if your pet diet of choice has limited ingredients, you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies and related diseases. It is the number one reason I don’t jump on these diet bandwagons.

Issue with grain-free diets

The issue with grain-free diets seems to center around taurine or carnitine deficiencies, but nothing has been conclusively decided. There has been one abstract published recently by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine that looked at 22 dogs. The results were suggestive that dogs eating grain-free diets had larger than normal hearts; however, the study was inconclusive. New studies are underway, and the number of dogs reported to have issues is ballooning.

Now, back to the FDA update, posted just this summer. The FDA felt so compelled to alert the public that they updated the original warning without conclusive evidence. This is quite unique for the FDA and telling in my eyes.

The FDA says the ingredients in the diet are the biggest concern, writing, “Rather than brands, the common thread appears to be legumes, pulses, and/or potatoes as main ingredients in the food. … Some reports we have received also seem to indicate that the pets were not eating any other foods for several months to years prior to exhibiting signs of DCM.”

Veterinary message boards, such as the one we use, called Veterinary Information Network, are all buzzing about the topic. Some suggest measuring both whole blood and plasma levels of taurine and supplementing where needed. However, other researches point out that taurine deficiency has yet to be determined as a causative factor.

So here are some guidelines: If your dog is on a grain-free diet and shows no cardiac signs, either change the diet or get an echo of your pets’ heart and test taurine levels. I vote to change the diet. If your dog has any cardiac issues at all, change the diet and consider supplementing with taurine. If you don’t want to do any testing and still want to feed a grain-free diet, at the very least supplement with taurine.

Once again, we see attempts at good go astray — I see it all the time. Don’t jump on fad diets, and feed your dogs a balanced, well-studied and researched diet. If you come to my office or contact me, I will recommend what to feed dogs.

Stephen Sheldon, DVM, practice at Gypsum Animal Hospital, a former president of the SFVMA and current veterinary industry consultant, can be reached at 970-524-3647, or

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