Why are we talking about this?
There has been growing concern surrounding grain-free diets for dogs. Within the past few years, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fortune (among others) have reported on a large group of Golden Retrievers who were diagnosed with a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), associated with eating grain-free diets. Those articles were published following a 2018 announcement that the FDA is investigating a link between grain-free diets and DCM in dogs. The FDA doesn’t often become involved in the pet food industry, so this is a big deal! The investigation is ongoing, but enough information has been released for us to be worried about grain-free diets.
How does taurine relate to grain-free diets?
Taurine is an amino acid, and as an ingredient for proteins that build muscles, it helps the heart pump effectively. Researchers noted taurine deficiencies in many of the Golden Retrievers in the study referenced above. Luckily, your veterinarian can test taurine levels in a blood sample and can supplement appropriately. In many cases, if DCM was caught early, dogs’ hearts recovered and taurine levels stabilized. There are existing questions about genetic predispositions to taurine deficiencies. Some dogs received a grain-free diet, developed DCM, but had normal taurine levels. The bottom line is that grain-free diets are associated with DCM, and research is ongoing to determine the specific physiological process. Taurine is one treatable deficiency that your veterinarian may want to consider.
Now that I know about grain-free diets, what should I look for on pet food labels?
The implicated diets had less than 26% protein, high ash content, and often unique protein sources (lamb, kangaroo, alligator, etc,). Ash is basically bone meal and is not a readily available source of protein. We know that chicken and beef are good sources of taurine, so diets consisting of those proteins are less risky, though your veterinarian may still recommend special protein sources if your dog has allergies. Finally, foods with large amounts of legumes (chickpeas, peas, lentils, most beans, etc) in place of grains may interfere with taurine absorption in the gut. A good food option will have 0.1 – 0.2 % taurine and/or a slightly higher level of Methionine.
What should I do now?
Always feel free to discuss your pet’s diet with your veterinarian! We’ll be happy to provide input and advice, and will likely want to see food labels. Your pet’s food should be AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) certified, but that’s not always enough. The best companies have board-certified Veterinary Nutritionists advising on the formulation of their diets. The Big 3 manufacturers are Hill’s, Purina, and Royal Canin: they spend the money to do the research, but the smaller companies may do this too. Ask! Just like us, our furry companions are what they eat, and it’s up to us to make sure all of their nutritional requirements are met.