Tn July 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an investigation into a possible link between some ingredients in grain-free pet foods and atypical cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a serious heart condition that occurs in some dogs. Naturally, pet owners, vets and pet food companies were concerned because of the trend toward grain free foods by pet owners. The critical point under investigation is the possibility of a taurine deficiency caused by using ingredients from legume proteins or potatoes as substitutes for grains or diminished animal proteins. Pet food manufacturers have been using these ingredients in increasing numbers over the last 20 years.

Why taurine? Taurine is an amino acid that is important to heart health in all animals and humans. In cats, taurine is a critical nutrient in pet food, and was isolated as critical to cats health in 1987 when cats were dying from unexpected heart disease. But dogs can manufacture their own taurine by ingesting appropriate levels of other amino acids, methionine and cysteine. What the FDA study found was that in some combinations of conditions, the base amino acids (methionine and cysteine) needed to produce taurine may not be high enough or bio-available thus putting some dogs at risk.

In dogs, DCM diagnoses related to low whole blood taurine concentrations have been reported in Cocker Spaniels, Dalmatians, Boxers, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, Newfoundlands, Portuguese Water Dogs, English Setters, Alaskan Malamutes, and Scottish Terriers as far back as 1997. Recent reports, including the statement by the FDA (2018), have implicated that lentils, peas, and other legumes seeds could be responsible for the development of DCM in dogs not genetically predisposed to this disease.

There has been increasing concern and discussions around the series of studies and what the appropriate actions might be. The conclusions were complex and not conclusive but found that risks vary with dog age, sex, breed and size as well as the quality and combination of ingredients and method of food production. In short, there is no simple answer.

So how do we know our pet is getting enough taurine? Taurine is present in animal-based proteins. Organ meats or muscle meats are higher in taurine than chicken breast or some animal proteins are a bit lower than others such as lamb. It is unwise to use a taurine supplement unless your vet recommends it as getting amino acids out of balance can have other negative effects.

As pet lovers and concerned owners, we want the best for our pets and tend to follow advice or popular trends in consumer products. Grains added to the appropriate ratio of animal proteins are not universally unhealthy for dogs. Feeding a grain-free diet does not guarantee your dog is getting all the nutrients they need. Pet owners do not have the scientific knowledge or time to analyze every ingredient or the appropriate ratios needed to keep our dogs healthy and must rely on regulators like the AAFCO, manufacturers and the veterinary community to be the experts.

What actions should dog lovers take to protect their dog's heart?  Common sense supports the importance of feeding a balanced diet of AAFCO approved food that is fresh and made with quality sourced ingredients. Following a “clean eating” policy of reducing ratios of kibble which is highly processed and increasing other forms of commercial dog food such as raw, freeze dried or canned can improve the freshness and bio-availability of the nutrients in food.

Augmenting commercial food with real food such as raw meat, fish or eggs or rotating proteins helps assure pet owners that their family pet is getting a good variety and fresh sources of the key nutrients that they need.

When feeding kibble, keep an eye on freshness dates and wash any storage containers between bags to keep new food from contamination from rancid oils or other residue. Talk to your vet about your dog's heart health as heart disease occurs in 10-15% of all dogs and cats and is significantly higher in some breeds.

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The Risk of Heart Disease in Grain Free Diets