In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration released a report naming 16 dog food brands that had been linked to cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. These dog foods were primarily labeled “grain-free”, which had been a growing purchase trend among dog owners. The report sparked discussion over whether grain-free diets are helpful or harmful to dogs, and many owners switched their pets back to traditional diets.
If you’ve been feeding your dog a grain-free diet and are worried that he or she could have been put at risk for developing DCM, keep reading. We’ll go over everything you need to know about DCM, which brands and ingredients have been associated, what we’ve learned so far about the risk factors.
Let’s start with the companies. The FDA report names the following 16 dog food brands as having links to at least 10 cases of DCM:
Does this mean you should switch brands? The FDA states that everyone should consult their vet for guidance on what food to use, which means the FDA is not saying to switch. Our personal recommendation, until more information is gathered, is to use a grain variety of the brand your dog currently uses (unless your dog has allergies with common grains). For instance – I fed my dog a grain-free Fromm formula. In light of this research, I slowly transitioned her to a grain Fromm formula.
It’s also encouraged to stay away from dog foods where peas and/or lentils are a primary ingredient, as they were a common ingredient among reported cases.
The team here at Woof Whiskers recently completed a study focusing on the cost of dog food. One of the most interesting findings was the fact that dog owners spend 44% more for grain-free formulas than grain. With the DCM news in everyone’s mind, will manufacturers cut back on grain-free formulas? Will the cost of grain-free decrease? It will be very interesting to see how the higher end of the market responds with their formulas and advertising.
Apart from the food itself, your dog’s DNA also plays a role. Larger breed dogs are more prone to DCM than small breeds. According to the FDA, the following breeds have the highest number of reported cases of DCM:
If your dog is a purebred or mixed with any of these breeds, you should be especially watchful for the signs and symptoms of DCM. However, any breed can still develop DCM with the right environmental factors.
If you’re not sure about your dog’s ancestry, as is often the case with rescue dogs, a dog DNA test is extremely helpful to you and your vet in determining which hereditary conditions your dog could be at risk for. Consider having one done to assist in choosing the right diet for your dog’s breed.
What You Need to Know
What is DCM?
Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, is a type of heart disease that affects the heart muscle and can occur in both humans and dogs. It results in a reduced ability of the heart to pump blood through the vascular system. There is no single identified cause of canine DCM, but rather a series of potential factors, including genetic predisposition, nutritional deficiencies, and infection. Certain large breeds are at a higher risk of developing DCM and deficiencies of taurine and carnitine have been linked to the disease.
What are the symptoms of canine DCM?
There are a few symptoms to look out for if you’re worried that your dog may be suffering from DCM. They include:
- Weakness and/or fainting
- Loss of appetite
- Pale gums
- Coughing or difficulty breathing
- Increased heart rate and arrhythmia
- Distended abdomen
How is DCM treated?
If your dog develops DCM as the result of a grain-free diet, the first step is to switch your dog to a different brand of food. You may also need to start giving your dog taurine supplements if your vet determines that a deficiency is present. Additional treatment depends on the stage and symptoms but may include fluid drainage, diuretics, and medication. You should follow up with a cardiologist; ask your veterinarian for a referral.
Is my dog at risk of developing DCM?
If you’re like most dog parents, your pet’s health is one of your biggest concerns – maybe more so than your own! It’s natural to hear the news about DCM cases and instantly worry about your dog’s risk of developing it.
So far, it seems that there are three main factors being linked to the rise in cases of DCM: dog food brand, ingredients, and breed. If your dog meets one or more of the risk factors, you should certainly report any suspicious symptoms to your veterinarian, but it doesn’t mean your dog will ever have DCM. It’s also important to remember that your dog can develop DCM even without being considered a high risk for the disease.
Which ingredients should I avoid feeding my dog to reduce the risk of DCM?
Since dog foods are made up of many ingredients, it’s hard to narrow down which specific ingredients might be causing these cases of DCM. Generally speaking, the FDA believes that dog foods labeled “grain-free” cause the highest risk. These often contain abnormally high amounts of legumes like peas or lentils, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.
Tufts also notes that many of the associated foods and diets contain “exotic” ingredients. These include kangaroo, lamb, chickpeas, and salmon. The university suggests sticking to foods with more traditional, tried-and-true ingredients like chicken and beef until more research is done.
Are grain-free dog foods safe?
If your pet is on a grain-free diet but hasn’t shown signs of DCM, you might wonder if it’s safe to continue feeding your dog a grain-free dog food brand or if you should switch back to a traditional diet. According to a follow-up analysis from Tufts, most dogs can safely eat a grain-free diet and never develop DCM. That being said, there’s little evidence that average healthy dogs get any type of benefit from a grain-free diet.
If your dog doesn’t have any allergies or medical conditions that prevent them from eating grains, talk to your vet about the best course of action. Tufts recommends sticking to a traditional grain-inclusive diet until more research is done. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you and your vet to decide which type of diet gives your pet the best chance of a long, happy, healthy life.