Article: Grain-free diets are “market-driven fads” with no proven link to dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs

Who knew eating peas could be trendy?

Last July, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it was investigating a potential link between heart disease in dogs and the consumption of grain-free pet food.

The announcement said, in part: “We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dogs who ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, and other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients.”

That announcement set off a firestorm of confusion and (often) misinformed debate among those who advocate for unconventional diets such as grain free, raw, home prepared, vegetarian, and boutique commercial pet foods.

In order to address the confusion, Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, got together with several of her cardiologist colleagues and published an article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that summarized the current medical understanding of diet-associated DCM.

Their conclusion: That many pet food diets are inspired by market-driven fads “unsupported by nutritional science, including grain free and exotic diets.”

It’s a conclusion likely to set off another round of impassioned debate, and it seems as though everyone has a dog (or cat) in this fight.

NEWStat asked corresponding author Freeman what veterinary professionals should keep top of mind about the report.

Freeman said, “While many people have focused on grain-free diets being associated with this problem, other diets may put dogs at higher risk as well. I call the suspected diets ‘BEG’ diets—boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets. It’s also important to be aware that vegetarian, vegan, and raw meat diets are not immune.”

And what about the oft-mentioned link between DCM and low blood taurine levels?

Freeman says that in her hospital, staff currently measure taurine levels in all dogs with DCM. She also notes that the majority of those patients are eating BEG diets.

“Some dogs being diagnosed with DCM have low blood taurine levels, but most have normal taurine levels.” In fact, she puts that figure at more than 90%. “However, even some of the dogs with normal taurine levels have improvements in their hearts after a diet change,” Freeman said.

Freeman says this suggests that something else is playing a role in most cases, possibly a deficiency of a different nutrient or even a toxicity that may be associate with BEG diets.

As the authors note, “[While] there appears to be an association between DCM and feeding BEG, vegetarian, vegan, or home-prepared diets in dogs, a cause-and-effect relationship has not been proven, and other factors may be equally or more important.”

The article recommends assessing diet history in all patients to help to identify diet-related cardiac diseases as early as possible, pinpoint their cause, and potentially, determine the best treatment for diet-associated DCM in dogs.

Photo credit: © iStock/rmarnold

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