In 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an investigation into a potential link between dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free diets.
They recently published some new findings and we know that many of our clients will have questions regarding their pet's diet and how it may affected their health which is why our staff worked together to compile this useful Q&A.
Q: What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?
A: Dilated Cardiomyopathy (abbreviated as DCM) is a disease that affects cardiac muscles in both dogs and cats, and as a result, the heart is unable to generate enough pressure to pump blood throughout the body. Over time, DCM can lead to heart murmurs and arrhythmias, heart failure, and even sudden death.
Q: Why is diet being linked to DCM?
A: Although the definitive cause of DCM is still unknown, certain breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxers, and Cocker Spaniels seem to be predisposed. However, in the past five years, veterinary cardiologists have noticed a spike in cases of DCM in breeds of dogs that were not previously known to have a genetic predisposition to the disease. More than 200 cases were reported between December 2018 and April 2019 alone, but the actual number of affected dogs may be much higher. This is because most veterinarians and veterinary cardiologists do not report their cases to the FDA. Because of the drastic increase in reported cases of DCM and the rising number of pets on boutique, exotic, and grain-free food, cardiologists and the FDA investigated the potential link between diet and DCM.
Q: Which ingredients should I avoid to decrease my animal's risk in developing DCM? Is it just grain-free?
A: While grain-free does seem to be a major player in DCM -- with 91% of cases reported involving a grain-free diet -- the problem is not that clear cut. The issue may not necessarily be the lack of grain, but the ingredients companies are using in place of conventional grains. There may be multiple deficiencies at play, or certain ingredients may be directly harmful to the heart. Some of those ingredients include peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes. Because of the multifaceted nature of this problem, nutritionists are advising clients to avoid not only grain-free diets, but diets made by smaller, boutique companies and diets with exotic ingredients as well.
Q: I've heard that a taurine deficiency may be a factor in developing heart disease. Can I just add in a supplement?
A: While a taurine deficiency may lead to the development of DCM, the majority of pets being diagnosed do not have low taurine levels. Taurine supplementation is NOT recommended without veterinary supervision, as it is unlikely to prevent DCM in a dog without a deficiency.
Q: What food companies are veterinarians recommending, and how do I know they're safe?
A: Currently, veterinarians are recommending that pet owners stick to larger, well established companies. This is because larger companies tend to have stricter food quality protocols and employ full time nutritionists to secure that all guidelines are being met with each batch of food that is made. Smaller, newer companies may not have the resources to monitor and test food as closely, and many do not employ nutritionists. Ideally, the company should also actively participate in research as well as perform feeding trials for their products to ensure that the foods' nutrients are being properly digested and absorbed. At the minimum, food must always have an AAFCO statement (AAFCO, or the Association of Feed Control Officials, sets standards for pet food regulation and develops nutritional guidelines that all pet food should meet). The AAFCO statement is usually found on the bag. Hill's, Royal Canin, Purina, Pedigree, and Eukanuba/Iams are all companies that perform diet trials.
For guidelines on selecting good quality food for your pet, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association has put together a list of questions to consider about the food company outside of the label alone.
For more information on DCM and other general food recommendations, visit Cummings Veterinary Medical Center's petfoodology page.