The Truth About Grain-Free Dog Foods And DCM

grain-free dog foods

Are grain-free dog foods really causing heart disease in dogs?

The FDA seems to think so … and they’ve finally named the top brands associated with DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy). 

You can skip ahead and see the top brands associated with DCM … but you might want to learn more first. 

The Link Between Dry Dog Food And DCM

The FDA recently updated their investigation into the recent spike in DCM cases. 

From July 2018 through 2019, over 500 dogs have been affected by DCM

And the FDA has concluded most of those dogs were eating a grain-free diet. 

DCM is a life threatening heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy.  Dogs with DCM develop an enlarged heart with weakening of the muscles. The heart becomes less able to circulate blood and, over time, fluid builds up in the lungs. 

DCM is the most common cause of congestive heart failure, which can cause death within months. 

DCM is irreversible and worsens with time, although treatment can slow the progression. 

And DCM is linked to a deficiency in an animo acid called taurine …

Taurine Isn’t Essential (Until It Is)

Protein in the diet comes from either animal sources or plants. The source of the protein determines the value to the animal eating it

A protein molecule is a chain of amino acids held together by peptide bonds.

amino acid protein breakdown

Amino acids are essential for all living cells. They’re used to regulate metabolism, and for tissue growth and repair. 

Amino acid deficiency has an adverse effect on all the organs of the body, and on the mucosal function and permeability of the gut. When gut permeability is increased, immune function can be affected. 

This is called leaky gut syndrome.  

There are 22 amino acids in total, each of which is important for dogs and cats to thrive. Ten of these amino acids are considered essential for dogs and 11 of them for cats

By definition, non-essential amino acids can be manufactured in the liver. Essential amino acids can’t be manufactured in the body, so they must be in the diet.

But in the case of taurine, this distinction is a bit blurred …

History Of Taurine In Pet Foods

A few decades ago, pet food manufacturers started extruding pet foods. Extrusion is a process of high heat and pressure. It gives kibble it’s kibble form and stops it from crumbling. A large amount of carbohydrate (at least 30%) is normally needed for food to be extruded. 

And carbohydrate is virtually devoid of taurine

Back in the 70s, cats started developing serious eye and heart diseases. By the late 80s, pet food regulators identified a lack of taurine in the carbohydrate-rich foods as the cause. 

Taurine is an amino acid that’s necessary for the development and function of the heart and muscle cells. It also plays an important role in eye, brain and immune function.

So in the 80s, taurine became the 11th essential amino acid for cats.

Unlike cats, dogs can manufacture their own taurine from other amino acids. So pet food makers don’t consider taurine to be an essential amino acid for dogs

But recently, the FDA discovered that some large breeds, including Great Danes, Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers and Irish Wolfhounds, can’t manufacture enough taurine when fed a diet that’s low in animal protein. 

They developed the same heart disease, cardiomyopathy, that was killing cats. 

Although cardiomyopathy can happen in any breed of dog, these particular dogs had their heart disease partially reversed by adding taurine to the diet. 

Today, the FDA suspects a lack of taurine is the link between grain-free diets and DCM

Complete And Balanced” Is An Illusion

Over the last 30 or 40 years, our food preferences have changed dramatically. 

In the 80s we wanted fat-free foods. Then in the 90s we wanted grain-free or gluten-free foods. Then in 2000 we wanted high-protein and paleo foods. Today we want farm-to-table, novel proteins, and even vegetarian and vegan diets. 

The foods we feed our pets are largely based on our own food choices.

While we change our minds about what we want to eat, the pet food companies are happy to cater to us … they sell us what we think we want. 

And while our nutrition preferences change, the formulation and ingredients in pet foods change with them.

The problem is, there haven’t been any significant changes to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nutrient requirements for dogs and cats

With all the new diets and novel ingredients that have appeared in the last 20 to 30 years, AAFCO hasn’t been able to keep up with the changes … and this increases the risk of nutritional deficiencies

So it’s important to note that the dogs with DCM that the FDA is investigating today were all eating AAFCO-approved foods labelled as “Complete and Balanced.”

Enter The Grain-Free Dog Food Diet

Of the dogs that developed DCM, the FDA found that 91% were eating a grain-free diet.

And 93% of the grain-free diets contained peas and/or lentils

Why is this significant?

Grain-free diets don’t contain the cereal grains we like to avoid (like corn, rice, barley, and other grains) … but they contain large amounts of peas, potatoes, lentils and legumes. This is because an alternate form of starch is needed for kibbles to be extruded.

But unlike cereal grains, peas, lentils and legumes are all high in protein

This means that grain-free pet foods can skimp on expensive animal proteins and use larger amounts of cheap plant proteins in their place.

And because plant proteins are devoid of taurine, dog foods might be deficient in taurine, just like cat foods were 40 years ago.  

Especially foods using novel ingredients.

What Dog Food Brands Are Associated With DCM?

The FDA recently published the 16 brands of pet food that were linked to greater than 10 cases of DCM in dogs.

Here are the brands the FDA is focusing on and the number of cases for each brand:

  1. Acana – 67
  2. Zignature – 64
  3. Taste of the Wild – 53
  4. 4Health – 32
  5. Earthborn Holistic – 32
  6. Blue Buffalo – 31
  7. Nature’s Domain – 29
  8. Fromm – 24
  9. Merrick -16
  10. California Natural -15
  11. Natural Balance -15
  12. Orijen -12
  13. Nature’s Variety – 11
  14. MutriSource – 10
  15. Nutro – 10
  16. Rachael Ray Nutrish – 10

But before you avoid those foods and move on, there’s more you need to understand about taurine.

A Twist On Taurine

Not all of the dogs that developed DCM from grain-free foods had low levels of taurine. 

That’s because dogs can manufacture taurine from other amino acids, including methionine and cysteine. So inadequate levels of other important amino acids might be the real culprit in some cases. 

According to veterinarian Dr Jean Hofve, gut health also impacts the levels of taurine in the body:

“The microbiome may also play a major role in taurine deficiency. This was found to be the primary factor in cats. The taurine from bile is re-absorbed in the colon, but bacteria can “steal” taurine and prevent this crucial recycling. Processing may also play a significant role, as it also does in cats. This has not, to date, been considered or investigated.”

So taurine deficiency might be a multi-pronged issue. 

With that said, it simply comes down to the quality of the diet.

So let’s take a look at how you can feed a diet that decreases the risk of taurine deficiency in your dog.

What Are The Safest Foods For My Dog?

It’s not entirely accurate to say grain-free foods are the cause of DCM. This would imply that grain-filled foods are a better choice. 

But grains and starches are all associated with gut dysbiosis, obesity, chronic inflammation and more. 

The real problem is the use of plant-based protein to replace animal protein. Plant proteins are devoid of taurine. 

But foods with animal proteins can also contain lower levels of taurine and you need to be aware of this.

Top Tips For Avoiding Taurine Deficiency In Your Dog

1. Feed A Large Amount Of Animal Protein

Most animal protein is rich in taurine, so the best diet to feed is one that’s based on animal proteins. The best diet to feed is a raw diet, since it’s very low in starch. 

But there are exceptions …

2. Not All Protein Is Rich In Taurine 

Taurine is found in most animal proteins, but some sources are better than others. 

Poultry (turkey, chicken), fish, brain, heart and liver are good sources of taurine. 

Hooved animals (beef, lamb and goat), eggs and dairy contain lower amounts. So if you’re feeding your dog a beef-based raw diet without enough organ meats, your dog might not be getting enough taurine. 

So be sure to add plenty of heart, liver and brain to your dog’s raw diet … especially if you’re feeding beef, lamb or goat. 

And if you home cook your dog’s food, heating and processing can reduce the amount of taurine in animal proteins. 

3. Identify Free Amino Acids In Foods

If your dog’s food is low in animal proteins, it’s a poor-quality, cheap diet. 

But how can you tell?

Foods with low-quality proteins will be missing key amino acids … and they’ll be added back in as synthetic (or free) amino acids.

These are chemicals that are made in a lab, not in nature. 

Here’s an ingredient panel with several added amino acids (underlined in red):

grain-free dog food nutritional info

You want your dog to get real amino acids from his food, not fake ones made in a lab. So avoid feeding any food with added amino acids … it’s a sign of low amounts of animal protein.

It’s a cheap food with cheap ingredients. Move on …

4. Avoid Foods With Lentils, Legumes And Potatoes

Peas, lentils, legumes, sweet potato, and other dehydrated potatoes are a convenient way for kibble makers to replace animal proteins with cheap plant proteins in their dry food.

Any food that contains these as main ingredients is a poor-quality food and, even if your dog isn’t at risk for DCM, he may be lacking other key nutrients when fed these foods.

These foods are also high in phytic acid

Phytic acid can inhibit the absorption of critical nutrients including manganese, iron, calcium and phosphorus, and can limit the retention of manganese in the body.

At the end of the day, what you need to remember is that some foods are more necessary than others.

Meaty bones, organs, fruits and vegetables that are rich in nutrients … these are all important for a happy and healthy dog.

Carbohydrates (even “healthier” ones like dehydrated sweet potatoes) are not.

While fairly harmless in small amounts … starchy foods offer little nutritional value and can create many problems for your dog.

If you choose to feed dry dog food, try to opt for foods with protein sources (chicken meal, turkey meal, herring meal, salmon meal, etc) as main ingredients.

Is Your Dog Deficient In Taurine?

If your dog has been eating a grain-free kibble, he won’t necessarily develop DCM. 

With that said, there’s no better time to switch your dog to an animal-protein-rich diet than today!

But if you’re concerned your dog is deficient in taurine, especially if you have one of the breeds most frequently affected, there’s hope …

You can ask your vet to check your dog’s taurine levels and even get an echocardiogram to be sure.

For now, the best way to avoid taurine deficiency is to feed your dog a fresh, whole food, meat-based diet … including organs like heart, liver, kidney and lung.  


Is grain free food good for dogs?

Grain-free dog food isn’t inherently bad, but issues arise when it substitutes grains with high levels of legumes or potatoes, which can lead to taurine deficiencies. This deficiency is linked to cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, especially when the diet is low in animal proteins.

Why do vets not recommend grain free dog food?

Many veterinarians are cautious about recommending grain-free dog food due to its association with DCM, a potentially fatal heart condition. The concern is mainly due to these foods often lacking sufficient taurine levels, necessary for heart health, due to high legume or potato content.

What is the number 1 healthiest dog food?

The healthiest dog food is one that is rich in animal proteins and low in unnecessary fillers like grains and legumes. Foods that prioritize meat-based ingredients (dehydrated chicken, beef, lamb, etc), without added synthetic amino acids, generally provide more protein and comprehensive nutrition that supports overall health.

What dog food is not recommended by vets?

Veterinary nutritionists generally do not recommend dog foods high in legumes, lentils, or potatoes as main ingredients, especially those labeled as grain-free but lacking adequate animal protein. These can lead to nutrient deficiencies and health issues like DCM.

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