Grain Free and BEG Diets: The Connection To Dilated Cardiomyopathy In Dogs

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Diet Associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), or enlarged heart, has been a hot topic lately. The media outlets have been buzzing about grain-free diets and sudden heart failure in dogs. Researchers have been hard at work looking into the correlation, and have uncovered the following:

1. It’s not just grain-free. This does not appear to be an issue with just grain-free diets. “BEG” diets – boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets better describe the at-risk categories. The apparent link between the diets and DCM may be due to ingredients used to replace grain in grain-free diets, such as lentils and chickpeas, but also may be due to exotic meats, vegetables, and fruits. In addition, not all pet food manufacturers have the same level of nutritional expertise and quality control and this could introduce potential issues with some products.

2. Most dogs with diet-related DCM do NOT have low taurine levels. Some owners continue to feed BEG diets but supplement with taurine thinking this will reduce the risk of heart disease. However, more than 90% of patients with DCM have normal taurine levels. Yet some of these dogs improve when their diets are changed. This suggests that there is something else playing a role in most cases. Giving taurine is unlikely to prevent DCM unless your dog has a true taurine deficiency. Also, given the lack of quality control for dietary supplements, you can actually introduce new risks for your dog if you give a supplement they don’t need.

3. Raw diets and homemade diets are NOT a safer alternative. DCM has been diagnosed in some dogs eating these diets as well.

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Common Questions

1. What’s causing diet-associated DCM in dogs? For most dogs, we do not know yet. There are definitely some dogs with DCM that have low taurine levels. For dogs that have normal taurine levels though, other nutritional deficiencies may be present. Some of these diets may have insufficient nutrients or reduced bio-availability that could trigger heart disease. The FDA continues to actively study this situation so we can resolve the issue as soon as possible.

2. My dog is eating a BEG diet but has no symptoms, what should I do? It is unlikely that most dogs eating a BEG diet will develop DCM. However, given the fact that we don’t yet understand the connection between the diet and developing cardiomyopathy, we would recommend reconsidering your pet’s diet. Contrary to popular belief, there are NO health benefits of a¬†grain-free or exotic ingredient diet for dogs, unless they have a rare allergy to grains.

Be sure to watch for signs of heart disease – weakness, slowing down, exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, coughing, or fainting. If you notice any of these signs bring your pet to the vet immediately. Your veterinarian may notice a heart murmur or rhythm disturbance. They may also recommend additional tests such as x-rays, blood tests, ECG, and ultrasound of the heart.

If your dog has no symptoms, additional testing is up to you. A recommended blood test (pro-BNP) can measure a cardiac enzyme that increases with heart enlargement. Getting a baseline level and monitoring it over time can give you an early indication that something may be wrong. However, realize that a normal value does not guarantee that your pet does not, or cannot, develop heart disease. A high level suggests that your dog’s heart should be further evaluated.

Taurine levels can also be monitored but this testing can be very expensive; and remember, some of these dogs will have normal taurine levels when they develop heart disease.

Finally, the definitive test for DCM is an ultrasound of the heart or echo-cardiogram. This may be recommended if heart disease is found on physical exams or screening tests, however, it is usually not the first test performed.

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3. Has diet-associated DCM been diagnosed in cats? At this time an association between diet and DCM has only been diagnosed in dogs.

If you have been feeding your dog an exclusive grain-free or BEG diet and have concerns, schedule an appointment to start the discussion. We want to help the public understand the complexities of making safe and nutritionally balanced food so that you as a consumer can choose the best diet for your pet.

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