We know you want to provide your furry friend nutritious food to keep her healthy and happy for many years, and we want to partner with you in that goal. As a pet owner, you may have heard recent conversations about grain-free pet foods, and their link to heart disease in dogs, or you may be unaware of this critical concern. Either way, we have broken down the information to educate you regarding the important facts about new pet foods, and their possible risk for your dog. Here is what we currently know about grain-free pet foods and canine heart disease.

#1: The number of dogs diagnosed with heart disease has increased

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a dangerous heart disease, affecting dogs and cats, that causes the heart walls to become thin and weak. Over time, the force of blood being pumped through the heart causes the walls to stretch and the chambers to become enlarged, or dilated. The resulting heart is large and round, and the stretched walls cannot contract efficiently to pump blood. Unfortunately, heart failure develops that progresses to death. 

Historically, DCM has affected mainly genetically predisposed dog breeds, such as Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, and Irish wolfhounds. In the 1980s, DCM was diagnosed in many cats fed diets with insufficient levels of taurine, a critical amino acid. After the DCM-taurine link was established, pet-food companies supplemented their foods with the amino acid, and DCM incidence in cats declined. 

In the past several years, DCM has been diagnosed at a significantly higher rate in dogs who are not genetically predisposed, leading the veterinary community and pet owners to wonder about the cause of the sudden increase.

#2: Most dogs diagnosed with DCM were fed boutique, exotic, or grain-free diets

In 2018, the increased DCM incidence prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to launch an investigation to determine the cause. Since a taurine link was previously established, diet and taurine levels were of immediate interest. Data collected quickly revealed that the majority of affected dogs were fed grain-free diets, although foods from boutique companies and those with exotic ingredients were also implicated. Collectively, these pet foods are referred to as BEG—boutique, exotic, or grain-free—diets.

  • Boutique diets — These diets are manufactured by small companies, who may not perform research or use ingredients and recipes approved by veterinary nutritionists.
  • Exotic pet foods — Exotic vegetables, carbohydrates, or protein sources, such as bison, kangaroo, or duck, are used.
  • Grain-free diets — These foods replace grains with alternate carbohydrate sources, such as peas, chickpeas, or beans. Although people occasionally suffer from celiac disease, grain allergies are extremely rare in pets, and pet foods have been manufactured with grains for decades. 

#3: The FDA is researching the link between BEG diets and DCM

Although BEG diets and DCM appear to be connected, the exact cause has yet to be determined, and the FDA continues to gather information to better understand if, and how, these diets may be linked to heart disease. Affected dogs have normal blood taurine levels, and the foods analyzed contain adequate taurine levels, so a dietary deficiency does not seem to be the cause. The FDA is researching taurine absorption and excretion to see if BEG diets somehow alter taurine metabolism or utilization. 

#4: Feeding your pet a quality diet with grains is currently safest

Unfortunately, the veterinary community does not have specific answers regarding the exact DCM cause, or a possible link to BEG diets. However, some ingredients used in BEG diets likely play a role in DCM development, although the FDA may need several years to establish a direct cause and pinpoint the exact ingredients causing the problem. In the meantime, you should give your pet food that is made with traditional ingredients, including grains; backed by research; and produced by a reputable company that employs veterinary nutritionists.

Although many boutique, exotic, and grain-free diets may be safe for your pet, until we know which ingredients are linked to DCM, we can’t tell you which unique diets are safe, and which are not. We do know that, for decades, pets have eaten foods made with traditional ingredients and manufactured by reputable companies, without developing DCM. If you are currently feeding your pet a BEG diet, our veterinary team can help you choose a safe alternative until we know more about the connection between BEG diets and DCM. 

Contact us if you have questions about your pet’s diet, or would like advice about switching your pet to a new food.