Veterinary cardiologists have noticed sharp increase in a very serious heart condition in dogs the past 5 years. This condition, called dilated cardiomyopathy, seems to have an association with diets that are considered boutique, exotic, or grain-free, the so-called BEG Diets.
Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, is a type of heart disease in which the heart becomes enlarged, the heart muscle becomes flabby, and it does not beat or contract effectively.
DCM can be a silent killer, resulting in the sudden death of a dog that appears normal. DCM can cause heart failure. Early signs of heart failure include weakness, coughing, slowing down, and fainting.
What is a BEG Diet?
Small pet food producer without the resources or size to run their own research studies or employ a veterinary nutritionist.
Protein and plant sources in diets that are considered unstudied, unconventional, and previously rare in the pet food market such as kangaroo, lentils, peas, fava beans, buffalo, tapioca, barley, bison, venison, and chickpeas.
A diet that does not use grain-based products like wheat, oatmeal, corn or rice, usually substituting grains with other carbohydrate choices like potatoes, peas, lentils, taro root, or tapioca. Most raw diets are grain-free.
Taurine, Diet, and DCM
In cats, a diet deficient of taurine — an amino acid important in the metabolism of fats — has been associated with DCM.
Research linking taurine to heart disease in cats has been well-documented since the late 1980s; therefore, it is now a required component of all cat foods and cat diets. Tufts University is also studying the effect of BEG diets on cats and a potential link to DCM.
Dogs can typically synthesize or make their own taurine. However, ingredient factors like fiber type, carbohydrate and protein sources, cooking methods, and individual dog characteristics can affect how well their bodies make and use taurine. Until recently, dogs fed a commercial diet rarely had taurine deficiencies.
Some of the newly-diagnosed dogs with DCM cases were tested and had low levels of taurine. With taurine supplementation, some were able to restore their heart function close to normal.
More commonly, however, most dogs with DCM did not test low for taurine, but still responded to taurine supplementation and diet change. Some cases even responded with diet change alone. Sadly, however, the majority of dogs with DCM are diagnosed too late.
The FDA, veterinary nutritionists at Tufts University and University of California-Davis, and veterinary cardiologists are working to determine what specific components of BEG diets might be contributing to DCM. In the meantime, they recommend avoiding grain-free and other BEG diets. Visit taurinedcm.org for more information.
Grains in Pet Foods
Contrary to popular marketing the past 10 years, whole grains are NOT fillers in pet food. They add important proteins, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and fiber to pet diets.
Allergies to grain are very rare in dogs and there is no proof or reliable evidence that grain-free diets are better for our pets. In fact, grain-free diets have not been studied long-term.
Gluten intolerance in pets is even rarer than grain allergies. Gluten- or grain-free diets are considered marketing concepts to address pet owner demands, parallel to the increase in low-carbohydrate diets popular with humans.
Certain dogs may need very specific diets, so when considering a boutique, exotic or grain-free food, please ask us the pros and cons of a particular diet for your pet.
There are times when we may need to prescribe a food with an exotic protein or carbohydrate source to help rule-out or manage food allergies, but we will prescribe a diet from an established company with veterinary nutritionists on staff that conduct proper research.
While this increase in DCM cases is being studied, if you are feeding a BEG diet to your dog, we recommend transitioning diet to a grain-inclusive diet.
Guidelines for Choosing the Manufacture of Your Dog’s Diet
The WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association) has guidelines to consider when selecting the manufacture of your dog’s diet. These include:
- the presence of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist on staff
- regularly conducted, well-designed research studies and feeding trials
- publication of full nutritional profiles for each diet
There are only four companies in the US that meet these standards at this time: Royal Canin, Purina, Hill’s Science Diet, and Eukanuba.
Picking Your Pet’s Food
Here are additional resources for information on choosing a pet food from reputable sources:
- WSAVA – Selecting the best food for your pet
- WSAVA – FAQ and myths about pet food
- Tufts University Nutrition Service – Resources for picking the best food for your pet
When switching pets to a new food, always do so gradually over the course of 1-2 weeks to avoid causing gastrointestinal upset.