Update on Grain Free Dog Food
Grain-free diets for pets have become increasingly popular, with alternate carbohydrate sources such as peas, lentils and potatoes replacing grain ingredients. Many owners have reported improvements to their dogs’ health and skin, which has helped them gain popularity. However recent research has suggested a link between grain-free diets and heart disease in dogs.
GRAIN-FREE DIETS AND HEART DISEASE
In 2018 reports of a heart condition, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), increased dramatically and many cases were linked to diet. Cases of DCM were linked to not just grain-free diets, but “BEG diets”, which include boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets. This may be related to the ingredients used to replace grains, such as lentils or chickpeas. Other ingredients found in BEG diets such as exotic meats, vegetables and fruits may also be a factor.
A dietary protein called taurine has been involved in some cases – low taurine is a known cause of DCM. However, many dogs with BEG diet-related DCM had normal taurine levels.
WHAT IS DILATED CARDIOMYOPATHY?
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) causes the lower chambers of the heart to become enlarged and the heart muscles become thin. The weakened muscles struggle to pump blood around the body, resulting in fluid build-up in the lungs. Eventually the heart becomes overwhelmed and congestive heart failure develops.
The signs of DCM are:
– Laboured breathing
– Reduced appetite
– Sudden collapse
Traditionally DCM has been most common in large breed dogs such as Dobermans, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds and Great Danes. The recent BEG diet-linked cases are unusual because DCM has been occurring in non-predisposed breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Schnauzers and Poodles.
There are supportive treatments for DCM but in most cases it is ultimately fatal.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT DIET-LINKED DCM SO FAR?
Preliminary results of an FDA study have found that the dogs with DCM on grain-free diets had more advanced changes to the heart than dogs with DCM eating diets containing grain. Changing the affected dogs onto a high quality, grain-containing food improved and even reversed the condition in some cases. Other dogs diagnosed with BEG diet-related DCM need lifelong treatment. If already severely affected at the time of diagnosis there may be no treatment possible.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
For most of these cases, the exact cause of the disease is not yet known, but studies are ongoing. However, given the fact that we don’t yet understand why BEG diets are affecting some dogs and because DCM is a life-threatening disease, I recommend you reconsider your dog’s diet until we know more. Contrary to popular belief, there are no health benefits of grain-free or exotic ingredient diets except in the very rare case of food allergy. The recommendation in dogs suffering diet-associated DCM is to change the diet to one from an established manufacturer, containing standard ingredients (including grains). Recommended foods include Royal Canin, Hills Science diet and Advance.
If your dog has been showing any of the symptoms listed above, schedule an appointment with your vet. Your dog may need chest x-rays and/or a cardiac ultrasound.
For dogs without diagnosed disease on grain-free diets, the recommendations are not as clear. However be aware that some dogs may have early changes to their hearts and won’t show any symptoms at this stage. While an association between DCM and feeding BEG diets has been shown, there is not yet a proven cause-and-effect relationship. However, the risks of BEG diets must be considered whenever they are fed.
Pet diets are certainly not a one-size-fits all scenario. It is always best to discuss your pets’ diet with your vet, to ensure that your pet is on the diet that will be best for their long-term health and happiness.
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