Boutique, exotic, and grain-free diets as they relate to heart disease; a hot button topic with equal amounts of frustration on all sides. Pet parents who are just trying to do what is best for their pet turn to bloggers, pet food companies, friends, and veterinarians for advice and unfortunately are left with more questions than answers as they often receive conflicting advice. The primary reason for this is that nutrition is very complex and the science behind the recently reported rise in heart disease in dogs is far from settled. In this blog I hope to clear up some of the confusion surrounding this topic.

What is dilated cardiomyopathy?

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a condition affecting the heart function and is most commonly seen in large breed dogs. In DCM, the heart muscle becomes progressively weaker and loses the ability to pump efficiently causing the heart chambers to dilate. Strictly speaking, DCM is a disease of the heart muscle itself and there is a known genetic predisposition for the condition in Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds and others. Now we are seeing DCM in breeds with no reported genetic predisposition. They have as a common factor been fed one of these alternative diets per the FDA.  

What is taurine?

Taurine is an amino acid and a required building block of protein. In most dogs, taurine is not considered essential as typically they can synthesize it on their own.

How does my pet’s food relate to heart disease?

Unfortunately, the answer is we still don’t know. The data reported by the FDA suggests that 90% of reported DCM cases were fed a grain-free diet. Additionally, small batch boutique diets and exotic diets were over-represented. However, when analyzed by the FDA, all implicated diets had adequate levels of taurine and other amino acids. Because of this, the working theory is that the high amounts of lentils, peas, and potatoes/sweet potatoes is somehow binding taurine which subsequently results in DCM. Further, a recent study suggested that dogs with a diagnosis of DCM are more severely affected when fed a grain-free diet than those who were fed a more traditional diet, even when DCM was not primarily caused by low taurine levels.

My pet’s allergies are much better on grain-free foods what should I do?

In 97% of food allergy cases in dogs and cats, the allergy is related to the protein source found in their food. Of that 97% the top three allergens are chicken, dairy products, and beef. It is possible that your pet is allergic to the grains found in his or her food. However, it is more likely that the protein source was changed when switching to the current grain-free food, resulting in improvement in signs of allergies. Further consultation with your veterinarian would be recommended prior to continuing on a grain-free diet. If it is determined that the food allergy is grain related, blood taurine measurement and supplementation will likely need to be started.

Only a small number of pets have been affected compared to how many eat these foods. Why should I be concerned?

As of the most recent FDA publication, 515 cases had been reported to the FDA. It is true that this number is small compared to the number of dogs fed grain-free, boutique, and exotic diets. Oftentimes in pets, symptomatic treatment is pursued instead of a full cardiac workup which further compounds reporting efforts. Only dogs with a definitive diagnosis of DCM are mentioned in this report so it would not include any patient where a full cardiac workup was not performed. Further, it is important to note the trend in number of reports: 3 cases reported in 2017, 320 in 2018, and 197 in the first 4 months of 2019. The number of cases reported will continue to rise as pet parents become more aware of this condition and more routine screening is instituted.

What about cats?

While dogs have made up the majority of the reports to the FDA, 14 cats have developed heart disease which may be linked to their food as well. Unfortunately, cats as a whole tend to hide when sick until it could be too late. Because of this, it is believed their numbers have been underreported as well.

Where do we go from here?

After review and discussion of the available literature, we have contracted with an outside laboratory to offer a blood test that can screen for heart disease. We feel strongly that it is in the best interest of all pets who have been receiving a grain-free, exotic, or boutique diet to have this testing performed. If you have concerns or feel this may affect your pet, please contact us at 256-882-0950 to schedule a consultation or blood draw.

We at Whitesburg Animal Hospital are always available to have an open discussion about your pet’s nutrition. We appreciate your trust and look forward to working with you to help ensure your pet has a long and happy life.

Your partners in all things pet related,

John Mark Russell, DVM

C. Mark Russell, DVM

Staci Armstrong, DVM

Ashley Pott, DVM

Kelly Hall, DVM