What you should know about grain free food and heart disease in pets

So the past 6-12 months, nutrition and DCM have been a big topic.  There are some breeds that we know are genetically predisposed to DCM. Boxers, Dobermans, Weimaraners, Great Danes and Cocker Spaniels are the most common breeds to get this disease in the past. Recently, other breeds have started being diagnosed with this disease at an unusuallyhigh rate. Researchers have been trying to figure out why so many dogs were being diagnosed with a disease that has not affected their breed significantly in the past.

There is speculation that there is a link between an increase in the number of cases of DCM and what the pet is eating.  Unfortunately, a tremendous amount of confusion and misinformation has circulated in the news and on social media.  So UVH wants to review a few important facts!


Question: What is DCM?


Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a heart condition where the heart muscle becomes flabby and stretched out and unable to properly contract. This leads to heart failure because the heart is not able to move blood through the body and the blood backs up.  If you think of the heart as a pump and the vessels as pipes, basically the pump loses power and is no longer able to push blood through the pipes. This can, rarely, occur in felines too.

DCM in a dog heart

True or False: Grain Free Diets are causing heart disease in pets?


This does not appear to be justan issue with grain-free diets.  We are calling the suspected diets, “BEGR” diets – boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets or raw..  The apparent link between BEGR diets and DCM may be due to the ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free diets, such as lentils or chickpeas, but also may be due to other common ingredients commonly found in BEGR diets, such as exotic meats, vegetables, and fruits.  In addition, not all pet food manufacturers have the same level of nutritional expertise and quality control, and this variability could introduce potential issues with some products.


True or False: Grain Free diets are causing low taurine levels and the low taurine levels are causing the heart disease in pets?


Some pets are being diagnosed with DCM and have normal taurine levels.  Some owners continue to feed a BEGR diet but supplement taurine thinking that this will reduce their risk for heart disease.  At UVH, we currently measure taurine in all dogs with DCM, but more than 90% of our patients with DCM in which taurine has been measured have normal levels (and the majority are eating BEGR diets).  Yet some of these dogs with DCM and normal taurine levels improve when their diets are changed.  This suggests that there’s something else playing a role in most cases – either a deficiency of a different nutrient or even a toxicity that may be associated with BEGR diets.


Question: Should I take my pets off grain free diet?


Yes. We recommend changing your pet from a BEGR diet until we know more. There is no proof that grain-free is better!  The fact is that grain allergies are rareso there’s no benefit of feeding pet foods containing exotic ingredients.  Food allergies in dogs are an allergy to the protein not a grain.  And while grains have been accused on the internet of causing many diseases, grains do not contribute to any health problems and are used in pet food as a nutritious source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

UVH recommends reassessing whether you could change to a diet with more typical ingredients made by a company with a long track record of producing good quality diets.

It’s important to use objective criteria (e.g., research, nutritional expertise, quality control in judging a pet food). The best way to select what is really the best food for your pet is to ensure the manufacturer has excellent nutritional expertise and rigorous quality control standards.




Question: My pet has been eating a grain-free diet, what symptoms should make me concerned?


Be sure to watch for early signs of heart disease – weakness, slowing down, less able to exercise, shortness of breath, coughing, or fainting. If you notice any of these, get your dog checked out by a UVH vet.  We will want to do an exam to listen for heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythm.  Not all dogs with DCM have any changes that can be heard with a stethoscope.   We may recommend other tests, such as x-rays, blood tests, taurine levels, and ECG/electrocardiogram, and an echocardiogram which is an ultrasound of the heart to rule in or out the presence of heart disease.


Question: Has diet-associated DCM been seen in cats? 


The association between BEGR diets and heart disease has only been reported in dogs so far. However, that doesn’t mean cats are immune.


Question. Do we know anything else about DCM and grain free diets. 


We still have a great deal to learn about diet-associated DCM.   There is not one cause that can be isolated at this time.

As of now, it appears that there may be three separate groups of dogs with DCM, although this may change as we learn more).

  1. Diet-associated DCM with normal taurine levels. 
  1. Primary DCM in predisposed breeds that is unrelated to diet.
  1. Diet-associated DCM with taurine deficiency: This is the least common form that is being seen. This appears to happen both in breeds predisposed to DCM and breeds that are not predisposed to DCM.


Want more? Here are reliable sources for more information:

  1. FDA’s most current response: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/questions-answers-fda-center-veterinary-medicines-investigation-possible-connection-between-diet-and
  2. FDA’s Investigation: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/news-events/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy
  1. AAFCO “What is in pet food/How to read a label”:https://www.aafco.org/Consumers/What-is-in-Pet-Food


Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and we hope that UVH has been able to answer your questions.  If you have further questions, let us know.  UVH will continue to update all of you as more research is performed.


Enjoy the day!

Dr. Catherine Foret