grain-free food and heart disease

Is grain-free dog food linked to heart disease in dogs?

That’s what the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to find out.

The FDA is investigating reports of an increase in a deadly heart condition in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

What’s puzzling the FDA is that DCM is showing up in breeds that aren’t usually genetically prone to the disease. So they’re looking for other possible causes of the disease …

… and they’re targeting grain-free dog foods.

If your dog eats ANY commercial food, grain-free or not, you’re going to want to read this.

The FDA, Diet And Heart Disease In Dogs

Dilated cardiomyopathy is typically seen in large and giant breed dogs. This includes Great Danes, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, Doberman Pinschers, Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands. Smaller breeds like Cocker Spaniels are also prone to DCM.

Recent reports show it in Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, Shih Tzus, Bulldogs and Miniature Schnauzers.

And the FDA thinks their diet may be to blame.

grain-free food and heart disease

What Is Dilated Cardiomyopathy In Dogs?

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a type of heart disease in dogs. It’s also known as an enlarged heart.

With DCM, both the upper and lower chambers of the heart become enlarged. The muscles become weak and the heart can’t pump blood as well as it needs to. When this happens, fluid builds up in the lungs and the hearts gets overloaded. This leads to congestive heart failure.

Early signs of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs can be hard to spot.

You can keep an eye out for:

  • less interest in exercise
  • lower exercise tolerance
  • increased breathing rate
  • excess panting
  • coughing
  • weakness
  • fainting episodes

Or your vet may notice a slight heart murmur or irregular heart rhythm.

Is Grain-Free Dog Food To Blame?

The dogs in the reports ate grain-free foods “as their primary source of nutrition” for months to years.

So why does the FDA think diet is the cause of this dangerous form of heart disease? The dogs in the reports have something important in common …

… all the affect dogs are eating foods that contain these specific ingredients:

  • peas
  • lentils
  • other legume seeds
  • potatoes

These ingredients are most commonly found in grain-free foods.

The dogs in the reports ate grain-free foods “as their primary source of nutrition” for months to years.

At this point, the FDA is investigating the link. They haven’t said how these foods are linked to DCM. They also haven’t listed any specific brands.

We spoke with veterinary nutrition expert Marion Smart DVM PhD about the investigation. Dr Smart’s take: it’s more complicated than some might think. And more research is definitely needed.

“This may relate to the way the pulses are grown. The fertilizers, the chemicals and the growing conditions may all be factors. They could be altering the plants’ metabolism and the number of antimetabolites present.” says Smart.

“There’s also the potential for some of these chemicals to be taken into the animal’s body. This could alter the ability to metabolize potential toxins or chelate important minerals. It could perhaps even denature proteins. Feed-grade pulses that are not suitable for human consumption could also play a role. These pulses may be immature, carry imperfections or could be contaminated with mycotoxins (a dangerous mold). They could even be tainted with some of the chemicals used to grow or desiccate them.”

As you can see, it’s not a simple study, and it’s not a simple answer. Researchers have to look at a lot of variables to get a concrete answer.

Taurine Deficiency And Grain-Free Dog Food

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about grain-free diets and heart disease in dogs. Grain-free foods have also been linked to taurine deficiency.

Taurine is an amino acid that dogs need for the development and function of their heart muscle cells. It’s also important for eye, brain and immune health. It’s found naturally in raw meats and organs but you won’t find it in cooked foods (unless it’s added back in via a synthetic supplement).

Taurine is found in most animal proteins, especially in the brain and heart. Poultry, fish and liver are great sources of taurine; hoofed animals, eggs and milk contain lower amounts. There’s almost no taurine in most plant proteins, so vegetarian and vegan diets can cause a taurine deficiency. Cooking and processing also reduce the taurine content … that’s why many processed foods include synthetic taurine supplements.

Some research says that DCM may be related to a nutritional deficiency in taurine in some dogs.

fda and dog food

Four of the cases the FDA is studying showed low blood levels of the amino acid taurine.  One of the dogs is recovering with treatment that includes a change in diet, plus taurine supplementation. But four other cases had normal blood taurine levels.

So lack of taurine wasn’t the issue in half these FDA examples.

We need to gather more information on the link between DCM and pet food. But that doesn’t mean grain-free kibble is safe. Not by a long shot.

Plus, there are a ton of reasons not to feed any type of kibble to your dog.

We need to gather more information on the link between DCM and pet food. But that doesn’t mean grain-free kibble is safe. Not by a long shot.

Get Away From Kibble

Kibble, whether it’s grain-free or not, is not good for your dog. And there are several reasons why.

  1. Kibble is dead food.

Kibble is cooked and extrusion is the main method manufacturers use. This heating and processing destroy the nutrients in the food. And for most kibbles, the manufacturing process requires the food to be heated four times. That means, by the time it hits the bag (which could sit on the shelf for months), virtually all the nutrition is gone.

To “put” the nutrition back in, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals to the food. But these aren’t real vitamins and minerals – they’re synthetic. They’re manufactured in a lab. And they contain only a fraction of what’s found in naturally occurring vitamins.

  1. Kibble contains aflatoxins.

Aflatoxins are poisonous carcinogens that come from mold. They’re common in grains like corn, wheat and rice as well as nuts and legumes. They’re usually a result of poor growing conditions or substandard storage.

Aflatoxins in dry dog food have caused serious health concerns over the past few years. In 1952, the deaths of several dogs from fatal liver disease were linked to aflatoxins in food. In 1998, 55 dogs died in Texas after eating dog food containing aflatoxin. A commercial dog food with aflatoxins caused the deaths of 23 dogs in the United States in 2005. Over the years, countless deaths have been directly linked to these molds. And experts say many more have gone unreported.

aflatoxins in kibble

Read more on the dangers of aflatoxins here.

  1. Kibble oxidizes, fast.

Oxidation occurs as soon as the oil in your dog’s kibble comes into contact with oxygen from the environment. It’s a chemical reaction that quickly produces rancidity.

This starts as soon as you open the bag. It loses its nutritional value and the fats begin to oxidize. And it gets worse every time you open it and expose the food to air.

Oxidation can also cause mold and bacteria to grow in the food. Rancid fats destroy vitamins, which can lead to vitamin deficiency.

NOTE: Ever notice that expiry date on your bag of dog food? AAFCO requires pet food companies to put a “Best Before” date on bags. But companies don’t actually have to say when the food was made. This means you have no way of knowing how long the food has been sitting on the shelf.

Feed A Raw, Whole Food Diet

The FDA investigation continues and we’ll keep you posted on any updates. In the meantime, there’s plenty of research that already shows the dangers of kibble. Your dog’s food needs to keep him healthy, not lead to future damage. 

Ready to move away from kibble? Read more about how to get started here.