Lately, there’s been stories in the news about heart disease (DCM), low taurine level and grain-free foods. Some concerned Mud Bay customers have also asked us some very good questions about what they’ve seen. When we get questions like these, Muddies often ask our in-house veterinarian, Dr. Katy Patterson-Miller for more information. So, we asked Dr. Katy if she’d answer the top seven questions she’s heard regarding grain-free diets, heart disease (DCM) and taurine for the benefit of all our blog readers.
Note: This blog post was originally published in August 2018, and republished in February 2019, and again on July 2019. Each time, we’ve updated the post with new information as it becomes available from the FDA or research papers. While these questions focus on possible taurine deficiencies, the most recent update from the FDA indicates they think that this uptick in DCM cases is less likely to be linked to low taurine than they initially believed.
#1: Why are people saying that grain-free foods might cause heart disease?
KP: Veterinary cardiologists have noticed an increase in DCM, which is a form of heart disease. When veterinarians asked what these dogs were eating, many of the dogs were eating grain-free foods. However, the FDA notes in its June 27, 2019 FAQs about the report that “most of the cases ate diets that appear to contain high concentrations/ratios of certain ingredients, such as peas, chickpeas, lentils and/or various types of potatoes. Some of these were labeled as “grain-free,” but grain-containing diets were also represented.”
#2: Then why are we also talking about taurine?
KP: Some dogs diagnosed with DCM also had low taurine levels. Taurine is an amino acid found in meat. Most dogs can create this amino acid in their bodies using the amino acids methionine and cysteine. However, the FDA notes that “There are multiple possible causes of DCM. Taurine deficiency is well-documented as a potential cause of DCM, but it is not the only cause of DCM. Nutritional makeup of the main ingredients or how dogs process them, main ingredient sourcing, processing, amount used, or other factors could be involved.”
Essentially, low taurine levels may cause some DCM cases but not all DCM cases. When the initial report by the FDA was released a year ago, many of our manufacturing partners at the time took the step of adding taurine to dog food out of an abundance of caution.
#3: Should I stop feeding my dog a grain-free food?
KP: At this time, we see no scientifically verified reason for people to transition away from their current foods of choice if it’s meeting their dogs’ needs. We haven’t seen any conclusive scientific evidence that grain-free food is the cause of low taurine levels or if low taurine levels are the reason for an increase in reported DCM cases. The current FDA report clearly states that they are not recommending that people change their dog’s diet at this time.
#4: If it’s not grain-free diets causing more DCM in dogs, what’s the cause?
KP: Unfortunately, we just don’t know. It could be that vets are getting better at spotting DCM, so it seems like there are more cases of DCM. It could be that some dog foods rely on too much vegetable protein and not enough meat protein to meet AAFCO diet standards, so there aren’t enough amino acids in some foods. It could be that certain types of processing significantly diminish taurine levels in dog food. There’s also a risk that synthetic taurine isn’t as bioavailable to dogs as we think it is. And there may be a cause that we haven’t even considered yet.
#5: Are some dogs at higher risk for developing DCM?
KP: Some dog breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Boxers, Great Danes, Dalmatians, Irish Wolfhounds, Newfoundlands, St. Bernard’s, English Bulldogs, and Cocker Spaniels are at genetic risk for developing DCM. But all dogs can develop DCM.
#6: What should I do if I’m worried, or I think my dog has a high risk of DCM?
KP: Talk to your veterinarian! Your vet can screen for DCM and make a definitive diagnosis via echocardiogram if necessary. She can also check your dog’s taurine levels with a simple blood test. Even if your dog does have DCM, if it’s caused by low taurine, it’s often reversible with taurine supplements. If your dog is diagnosed with DCM, you can work with your vet to find a different diet.
#7: Can’t I just give my dog a taurine supplement?
KP: You can if you’re concerned. Mud Bay sells Ark Naturals Grey Muzzle Heart Health, which is a supplement that contains taurine and L-carnitine. Any dog can benefit from these nutrients. You can also supplement your dog’s current diet with taurine-rich foods, such as chicken liver and hearts, beef hearts and livers, and whole sardines, herring and mackerel. You may also choose to feed your dog a high-quality raw food that contains lots of organ meat, which would contain high levels of bioavailable taurine.
We do know that one of the best ways to protect your dog from any possible nutritional deficiencies or any food-related concerns is to practice rotational feeding. Rotational feeding is the practice of giving your dog different formulas of food that contain different proteins to minimize the chance of long-term nutritional deficiencies. Adding a variety of minimally processed foods to your dog’s diet, such as organ-meat treats, raw food, and whole food supplements, will also ensure that your dog has the varied, healthy diet that all living creatures need to thrive. ***
Still have questions? Here’s a copy of the handout we created for our customers. You can also get a copy of this sheet at any Mud Bay, just ask! And, as always, we’re happy to answer questions at our stores or via social media.