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Grain-free diet may put dogs at risk

Dr. Jeff NicholALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The growing popularity of grain-free diets for dogs has worried many veterinarians for quite a while. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with independent researchers, has recently discovered a possible link between grain-free, “legume-rich” foods and a potentially life-threatening heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Deficiency of the amino acid taurine may be another significant factor.

A recently reported study involved golden retrievers – a breed that, prior to the rise in popularity of grain-free diets – was seldom afflicted with DCM. Many of these dogs ate foods that listed beans, peas, or lentils among their first five ingredients. An FDA announcement pointed out that, “The potential association between diet and DCM and dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.” Of dogs who ate only one type of food – a grain-free diet – 90% developed DCM. Of the nine diets studied, eight were marketed as grain-free. This is sobering news.

A recent article by veterinary cardiologist Dr. Sarah Cavanaugh explained how some of these ingredients ended up in dog foods. “When grains are excluded from pet foods some manufacturers increase the amount of legumes in an attempt to offset nutrient and density loses.” The law of unintended consequences.

The connection between diet and DCM is only in its early stages of investigation. So far it is believed that legume-rich diets and taurine deficiency are related to DCM. And while golden retrievers have been studied it’s possible that this breed may be genetically predisposed to taurine deficiency.

It’s complicated. We can’t simply say that foods that are labeled as grain-free are the sole cause of DCM in dogs. There are likely to be other factors but it has been established that diet is a component in some canine heart disease.

Early diagnosis, of course, matters; DCM doesn’t have to be fatal. Many dogs have improved with diet change, supplemental taurine and medication. If your dog has eaten an exclusively grain-free diet be on the lookout for coughing, labored breathing, weakness, or lethargy. A distended abdomen and fainting are particularly bad signs. Don’t waste time getting treatment started. A veterinary cardiologist could be mighty helpful.

Each week Dr. Jeff Nichol makes a short video, blog or a Facebook Live to help bring out the best in pets. Sign up at no charge at Dr. Nichol treats behavior disorders at the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Centers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe (505-792-5131). You can post pet questions at or by mail to 4000 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87109.