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Grain Free Diets, Taurine & Dilated Cardiomyopathy

In July 2018, the FDA released a statement about a possible link between the development of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs and grain free diets, specifically those diets containing high levels of legumes and potatoes. At this time, the FDA called upon consumers and veterinarians to self report any possible cases of DCM in dogs that were only eating grain free diets.

On June 27, 2019, the FDA released a follow-up report stating that they have not found any causal link between diet and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. Although they are continuing to investigate the cause of DCM, the agency believes the connection between diet and DCM is a complex scientific issue involving multiple factors. Currently, DCM impacts less than 1% of U.S. dogs, with .000007% being possibly related to diet and and others possibly caused by genetic predispositions. Read the full FDA statement.

Please read our FAQ below for more information about taurine, grain free diets and DCM. We have also included links to information from veterinarians and pet food manufacturers on the subject, including this piece by Dr. Ryan Yamka, PhD, who is board certified in companion animal nutrition by the American College of Animal Sciences and a fellow with the American College of Nutrition. Dr. Yamka’s article debunks many of the rumors that have been circulating since the FDA released their statement in June.


What are grain free diets?
Grain Free diets refer to any pet food diet that does not contain cereal grains (wheat, corn, soy, rice, barley, oats). As dry pet food (“kibble”) requires a form of starch as a binding agent, many grain free diets contain potatoes or legumes (peas, lentils or chickpeas) in lieu of grain. Although the news media has lumped diets not containing cereal grains all together, it is important to note that not all grain free diets are created equal – high quality grain free diets will contain mostly animal protein, with some potatoes or legumes used as binders and located further down the ingredient list.

What is DCM?
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease of the heart muscle characterized by an enlarged heart that does not function properly. DCM is a slow, progressive disease that may require ongoing treatment once developed.

How do dogs get DCM?
While the cause of DCM in dogs is largely unknown, we do know that genetic anomalies will determine how prone an animal is to DCM. Nutritional deficiencies of taurine or carnitine may contribute to the incidence of DCM. While it may occur in any breed, it is seen more frequently in large breed dogs, specifically Dobermans, Newfoundlands and Golden Retrievers.

How many dogs are affected by DCM?
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are 77 million pet dogs in the U.S. Currently, DCM impacts less than 1% of U.S. dogs, with .000007% being possibly related to diet and and others possibly caused by genetic predispositions. Between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019, the FDA received 524 reports of DCM (515 canine reports, 9 feline reports) from both veterinarians and consumers. Of these 524 reports, the FDA itself investigated 394 cases, out of which only 208 dogs were actually diagnosed with DCM.

What is taurine?
Taurine is an amino acid, which are the building blocks of protein and our muscles. Taurine aids in cardiac function, eye health, immune system function and in multiple other systems. Taurine is especially concentrated in the heart muscle and contributes to its proper functioning. When taurine levels are low, the heart becomes weaker and pumps less efficiently.

It is important to note that many of the dogs in the FDA report were not taurine deficient and had taurine levels that were at or above recommended amounts.

Where does taurine come from?
Taurine is found naturally in muscle meat and organs, as well as significant quantities in seafood. It is not present in vegetarian protein sources such as grains and/or legumes.

In dogs, taurine is not an essential amino acid, as they have the ability to make their own. Taurine is synthesized in the dog’s body from two essential amino acids, cysteine and methionine. Cats do not have the ability to synthesize taurine, so taurine is an essential amino acid for cats as they need this amino acid to come from their diet. Thus, all commercial cat food is fortified with taurine. Dogs that have been diagnosed with a taurine deficiency may need a taurine supplement or, potentially a methionine supplement.

Some have hypothesized that legumes are problematic because they somehow inhibit how dogs absorb the taurine in their food. If this were true, veterinarians would have seen a spike in DCM affecting cats as, unlike dogs, they only synthesize taurine from food and cat formulas contain the same types and amounts of legumes as dog formulas.

My dog’s food was listed in the report. Should I switch foods?
The FDA report is not a study; it is merely a set of data collected from veterinarians and consumers that self-reported their dog’s cases and diets. Additionally, the FDA’s original request for information only asked for reports from animals eating grain free foods (however, almost 10% of reported cases were from animals eating grain-inclusive diets). Over 50 brands were listed in the FDA’s report, including both specialty brands and multi-national brands found in mass retailer and grocery stores, as well as home cooked diets.

The data being circulated around social media is not from the FDA’s own internal investigation. The FDA has only investigated 394 cases (of which only 208 animals actually had DCM) and has not shared this investigation data with anyone outside of the FDA, including veterinarians.  The FDA is not recommending any dietary changes based solely on the information gathered. Grain free diets can have many tangible benefits over grain based foods in general and should not be categorized as a potential concern or problem.

I’m still worried. How can I boost taurine levels in my dog’s diet?
Taurine levels can be boosted simply by adding (or increasing) meat-based protein in your pet’s diet. Any type of raw meat will do as long as it’s fresh and good quality. Sardines and Capelin are particularly high in taurine. Adding freeze-dried, dry-roasted and air-dried meats can also boost taurine levels. Meats can also be lightly cooked; however, high-heat cooking can damage taurine.

It is important to note that all of the specialty brands carried by Petagogy that were listed in the FDA’s report either supplement their dog formulas with additional taurine over and above established AAFCO requirements, and/or have had the taurine levels in their foods tested by third parties and/or through feeding trials and report taurine levels that meet or exceed recommended levels. We have provided links to these brand’s DCM information below.

Is pet food regulated?
Both the FDA and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulate the sale, distribution and nutrient requirement levels for pet food. All pet foods sold at Petagogy are AAFCO certified.

At Petagogy, we pride ourselves on learning about the best products out there, and we hope to pass on that information to our customers. Our animals aren’t just pets, they’re our family. We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure they live long, happy and healthy lives. We opened Petagogy to give Pittsburgh-area pet owners access to an independent store in their community that has a knowledgeable staff and a wide selection of healthy and natural foods for dogs and cats. We still believe that the foods we carry are of the highest quality available, and continue to feed these foods to our own pets. We encourage you to visit any Petagogy location and speak with us if you have any concerns, or would like suggestions on how to increase the amount of animal protein in your dog’s diet.

Brand Statements on DCM:
Champion Pet Foods (makers of Orijen & Acana), DCM FAQs
Fromm Statement on DCM
Taste of the Wild DCM FAQs
Zignature Statement on DCM

For further reading:
The above information has been compiled from the following sources:

Dr. Ryan Yamka, “‘BEG’ Petfoods Does Not Equal DCM,” Pet Food Industry
FDA Update to DCM Investigation Clarifies a Few Things, Truth About Pet Food
Dr. Doug Knueven, “The Grain-Free Debate,” Pittsburgh Pet Connections, p. 20
Herbsmith, 5 Things you Need to Know about Taurine
Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, “Dogs Fed Grain-Free Kibble May Be at Risk for Heart Disease”

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