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Grain-Free Diets: A cause for concern?

September 30th, 2020
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The following information is not intended to cause alarm, but to keep our clients informed on current news in the veterinary industry that may concern the health of their pets.

In recent years, there have been concerns over a possible link between grain-free diets and a type of life-threatening heart condition found in dogs, called canine dilated cardiomyopathy.

What is Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)?

DCM is a disease of the heart muscle characterized by failure of one of the heart chambers, namely the ventricles, to pump blood through the vascular system. As a result, the ventricles of the heart dilate causing thinning of the wall and enlargement of the hear, the heart valves may then leak causing fluid build-up in the chest and abdomen. This may cause a dog to have a cough, difficulty breathing, low energy and can suddenly lead to collapse.

Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to developing DCM, including Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, Newfoundlands, Old English Sheepdogs, Dalmatians, and a variety of Hound breeds and Spaniels breeds, although nutritional and infectious factors also play a role.

The late concern is due to reports of the disease in breeds that have no known genetic predisposition to DCM and that many of these dogs were being fed grain-free diets.

What is considered a “grain-free” labeled pet food?

These are diets that use legumes, such as peas, lentils, legume seeds, as well as potatoes and yams as main ingredients and in place of grains. Main ingredients are listed within the first 10 ingredients on a food bag.

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How are these food ingredients possibly causing heart disease?

Research is still underway to determine the mechanism of action on the heart of non-specific dog breeds who consume grain-free diets. As stated by the FDA (June 2019), “based on the data collected and analyzed thus far, the agency believes that the potential association between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.”

There is not only one cause of DCM. For example, deficiency of the amino acid, Taurine, has been shown to cause DCM, although it is not the only cause of the disease. Nutrient bioavailability and digestibility of ingredients and their effects on the heart are also currently being theorized and studied.

Which food brands are currently being investigated?

Please visit the FDA’s website link: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy#diet, and refer to the section entitled: “Diet Information from Reported Cases”.

What should I do if my pet is on a “grain-free” diet?

To put the issue into perspective, of the 7.7 million dogs living in the U.S. (AVMA, 2017-2018), 560 dogs diagnosed with DCM were suspected to be linked to grain-free diets (FDA, 2019). For this reason, the FDA is not advising owners to change diets since millions of dogs eating a grain-free diet have not developed DCM.

However, if you wish to switch your pet to a different food to mitigate this potential risk, we would be more than happy to help you select a new diet that meets the nutritional needs of your dog.

What should I do if my dog is showing signs of DCM?

Clinical signs of Dilated Cardiomyopathy include coughing, difficulty breathing, restlessness, low energy, episodes of collapse, decreased appetite, and distended abdomen.

If you are concerned that your dog is showing signs of DCM, please book an appointment today. Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and recommend chest radiographs and, if heart disease is suspected, will refer you to a cardiologist for an echocardiogram and ECG recordings.

If your pet has been diagnosed with DCM and has been on a grain-free diet, it will be reported to the FDA.

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References

American Veterinary Medical Association (2017-2018). U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/us-pet-ownership-statistics

Cote, E. (2015). Veterinary Clinical Advisory. Dilated Cardiomyopathy. 280-281.

Dobranowski, A. What’s a legume, digital image, accessed 29 September 2020, https://health.sunnybrook.ca/food-nutrition/whats-a-legume/

Food and Drug Administration (2019). FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy