Last updated on July 1, 2019
Heart disease is a growing and common diagnosis in dogs. Max the Cocker Spaniel wasn’t doing so well. At the time, his mom, Patty Troup, was far from home and visits a local veterinarian with her dog. The vet tells her that Max has maybe three days to live. On the ride home, Troup phones her regular veterinarian with the devastating news. He wants to see the dog right away.
Max is not going to die any time soon, and that first vet was wrong. He is, however, diagnosed with a heart murmur, congestive heart failure, and DCM, dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart. Troup learns that some dog breeds lack taurine in their diets, which could have contributed to this condition. Armed with this information and under veterinary supervision, she starts Max on a taurine supplement twice a day.
At Max’s checkup recently, test results were alarmingly positive. The enlarged heart is substantially smaller and he is now considered low risk for congestive heart failure. Before and after photos of his heart are amazing. The veterinarian attributes this to the taurine supplement Max is receiving. In his case, he takes 1000 mg twice a day.
Our own dog, Dexter, has a heart murmur that we follow closely. Long-time readers of this blog know that we see a veterinary cardiologist, supplement with CoQ10 enzyme, and give him four ounces of fermented raw goat’s milk every morning.
Grain-Free Dog Food Dangers
The headlines sent dog lovers into panic mode: the summer of 2018 screamed of grain-free dog foods causing heart disease in dogs. From near constant dog food recalls to trying to pronounce ingredients that have no place in dog foods in the first place, pet parents had yet another critical issue to face. Just what is safe to feed our dogs anymore?
Marketing is a powerful selling tool for pet food manufacturers, and now the spotlight is not only shining on said manufacturers, but with Broadway-style wattage. Most dog owners want to be just that: owners of their dogs and not scientists to discern what might kill their dogs and what is healthy. Because we are a reality-based dog blog, we’ve done the research and here’s what we found.
Grain-free gained popularity about 10 to 15 years ago. We’ve been attending industry expos and trade shows for a decade and see more and more grain-free options in the dog food space hitting the market. Though dogs are now social media superstars in many cases, they still have a primitive digestive system. With the rise in itchy, yeasty, ear infected dogs (thank you additives in dog foods), more canines have been diagnosed with food allergies. Grain-free swoops in with its mighty presence to the rescue. But is it really?
Dogs, like people, have different needs according to a lot of factors, just like humans.
Grain-free dog food isn’t the enemy; it’s what ISN’T in grain-free dog food that could be leading to canine heart disease and eventual death. What your dog isn’t eating could be contributing to their demise. You should not immediately supplement with taurine, as this can be dangerous as well. We’re here to help.
Connection Between Dog Diet and Canine Heart Disease
Let’s deal strictly with the facts first. We know that on July 12, 2018, the FDA released an official pet consumer alert on their website. Here’s the bottom line:
FACT ONE: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is alerting pet owners and veterinary professionals about reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients.
The FDA continues to work with board certified veterinary cardiologists and veterinary nutritionists to better understand the clinical presentation of these dogs. The agency has also been in contact with pet food manufacturers to discuss these reports and to help further the investigation.
FACT TWO: Pet food regulations require that all ingredients go through an Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) process prior to their use in pet food/treat products. Pet food ingredient suppliers and pet food manufacturers ignored that requirement and flooded the market with grain-free pet foods for years BEFORE the ingredients were ever discussed and/or defined at AAFCO. No one State Department of Agriculture stopped them – FDA did not stop them.
The safety of the ingredients in dog food was never questioned. The ingredients were allowed to be put into dog food, dogs consumed the food, and only now is there a question of the safety of the ingredients? Prior to allowing ingredients like pea protein, pea starch, and pea fiber in pet foods, why didn’t anyone study them for safety?
FACT THREE: In their official pet consumer alert, the FDA writes, “High levels of legumes or potatoes appear to be more common in diets labeled as “grain-free,” but it is not yet known how these ingredients are linked to cases of DCM.”
The major pet food companies have the monies to spend on pet nutrition research. Much of the continuing education nutritional classes and webinars/seminars/expos/conferences on pet nutrition are sponsored by, you guessed it: pet food companies.
FACT FOUR: The FDA does a follow-up report, featuring questions and answers they feel need to be addressed. Namely, what brands of food should dog parents be concerned about? Their response: “There is a range of different brands and formulas included in the reports. Rather than brands, the common thread appears to be legumes, pulses (seeds of legumes), and/or potatoes as main ingredients in the food. This also includes protein, starch and fiber derivatives of these ingredients, (e.g., pea protein, pea starch, or pea fiber). Some reports we have received also seem to indicate that the pets were not eating any other foods for several months to years prior to exhibiting signs of DCM.”
Dog parents need to review the labels on the foods they are giving their dogs. Though the FDA is ‘not advising dietary changes based solely on this information,’ savvy dog parents are up in arms, and rightfully so.
Chubby puppy alert: Whole Dog Journal reports that grain-free diets are often far higher in fat and calories than many dogs require. For that publication, they advise to feed a grain-free diet only to dogs who have a problem with digesting multiple grains.
FACT FIVE: The Veterinary Nutrition Department at Tufts releases a response stating:
In dogs, Golden Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels were found to be at risk for DCM caused by taurine deficiency, and one study showed that Cocker Spaniels with DCM improved when given taurine supplementation. Since then, additional studies have shown associations between dietary factors and taurine deficiency in dogs, such as lamb, rice bran, high fiber diets, and very low protein diets. And certain other breeds were found to be at increased risk for taurine deficiency and DCM, including Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, English Setters, Irish Wolfhounds, and Portuguese Water Dogs. The reasons for taurine deficiency in dogs are not completely understood but could be reduced production of taurine due to dietary deficiency or reduced bioavailability of taurine or its building blocks, increased losses of taurine in the feces, or altered metabolism of taurine in the body.
Wait, what? Now you’ve got an entire community of breed-specific dog parents who are scrambling for what to feed, if their dog is affected, and will their dog die soon because of this mess?
Dog Taurine Supplementation and Taurine Deficiency
Amino acids are the building blocks of life. Taurine is an amino acid. You find taurine mostly in muscle meat. There is zero taurine in cereal grains. Dr. Jean Hofve, a holistic veterinarian, shares that “there isn’t enough real meat in the food to sustain a meat-eating predator like a dog or cat. The vast majority of dry pet foods out there contain little or no real meat, but instead use cheaper substitutes like grain proteins (corn gluten, wheat gluten, soy protein), and by-products such as meat and bone meal.”
Some taurine facts:
- Amino acid is a building block of protein.
- Animals can make some amino acids in their liver, but you must get some from a diet. Those amino acids are called essential, and there are 10 of them. Taurine is one and that is what is causing this furor.
Not so fun fact: Historically, cats paid the price for taurine deficiencies in pet foods with their lives. When World War II ended, about 85 percent of pet food was dry kibble. Prior to the war, 90 percent of it was canned with mostly meat. Since less meat was available, kibble was easier to make and had a bigger profit margin, cats were eating food that had no taurine. They went blind, got sick, and many died. It is mind boggling, right?
With the war over, the surge of suburbs, and a demand for faster foods, this trickled over into the pet food industry. Over at petMD, Dr. Ken Tudor shares, “In the late ’50s, a major pet food company discovered a method for taking the hot liquid soup of meat, fat, and grain scraps and injecting them through another heat process that “popped” the fluid into light, kibbled dry food of any shape. The dry food preference started during the war now had a mass market capability. The convenience and economy of dry food made it the most popular pet food choice for pet owners.”
I asked Dr. Laurie Coger, holistic veterinarian and owner of the Healthy Dog Workshop to weigh in on the matter. She received her DVM degree from Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
She says the real issue with any dog food is how much actual meat is in it and the quality of that meat. Taurine, she reveals, is most abundant in meat. She called a few pet food companies to inquire how much of their protein came from meat. Shockingly, some said 25 percent. Though their formulas technically had the right amount of protein, it is likely they were not adequate in taurine and other essential amino acid levels.
“There are ingredients that can impair the absorption of taurine, such as beet pulp, which some brands are using,” she said. “This area needs more research.”
Coger and others are very concerned about carbohydrates in the form of grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes. For her, they have no place in a dog’s diet.
“Whether from a sweet potato, rice, or pea, starches all break down to sugar, feeding inflammation and driving metabolism in potentially harmful directions,” Coger advised.
Does this mean you are hurting your dog by feeding him carbs? No, but everything in moderation. Guess who has zero requirement to inform you of the carb level in pet food? Pet food manufacturers! The horror continues. Dogs with cancer should not be consuming large amounts of carbs or sugar, so there’s that.
To roughly calculate the percentage of carbohydrate in a dog food, look at the guaranteed analysis on the label, and subtract the amount of protein, fat, moisture, and ash from 100 percent; the carb content is what’s left over. (You may have to contact the company to get the food’s ash content; it’s not required on the label, either.) Not all carbs are bad and we could write a mini novel on the topic. Bottom line: the “ideal” carbohydrate amount a dog should consume varies by dog. Just like people!
What About Those AAFCO Feeding Trials
Dog food manufacturers like to remind the public that feeding trials took place to determine the palatability, efficacy, and safety of said food on real life dogs. The Association of American Feed Control Officiala (AAFCO) say so on their website.
Guess how many dogs (or cats) need to partake in a feeding trial for AAFCO to put their stamp of approval on it?
EIGHT! That’s right, eight dogs or cats with no restriction regarding breed or sex. Dr. Coger explains:
Only six of these eight dogs must complete the trial, which lasts for 26 weeks. During the trial, the only food available to the test animals is the food being tested. Water is available ad libitum.
Before the trial starts, and after it ends, the participating animals must pass a physical examination by a veterinarian. The veterinarians evaluate general health, body and hair coat condition. At the end (but not at the beginning) of the trial, four blood values are measured and recorded: hemoglobin, packed cell volume, serum alkaline phosphatase, and serum albumin.
So, six dogs need to survive for six months on the food for the food to pass, with little real data on how their bodies are functioning. This means nothing from my point of view.
Finally, many experts recommend choosing a food because the company has a nutritionist on staff. Who’s on your regular payroll has little to do with the food formulation – that was set at the time the recipe was set. And there are many excellent nutritionists who work independently, formulating for many companies. These folks likely have broader experiences, working with a variety of ingredients and processes. They also may have a higher standard of proficiency, as they compete for the next job based on their track records.
If we fed dogs according to their biological needs instead of what food waste products and by products we want to use up, this taurine issue, along with other nutritionally influenced diseases, may not have become common. When a company decides to make a food based on an ingredient that isn’t a food, such as chicken feather meal, do you think that company has the dog’s health as the foremost priority?
Basic Dog Food Primer
The pet industry likes to throw fancy terms around while using trendy sounding words on packaging. Here are a few:
Human grade refers to a finished product that is deemed legally suitable, safe, and FDA-approved for consumption by a human.
Feed grade refers to the quality of a finished product which is not suitable for consumption by humans according to FDA standards. It is only legally allowed to be served to animals because of the ingredients it contains or how it has been processed. Further, it may include by-products, chemicals, fillers, and parts from “4D” meats: animals which are dying, diseased, disabled, or deceased. (re-read that last sentence very carefully. Did you shudder as we did?)
Made with human-grade ingredients does NOT mean a finished product is actually legally, human grade. An ingredient might start off being fit for people to eat it, but once it is shipped to a pet food plant and processed according to regulations for feed grade products, the term “human grade” can no longer apply. By true definition, that ingredient is not human grade.
What we do know is this: Fresh, whole food is good for dogs. Kibble loaded with corn and other fillers/sugars can lead to problems in a dog.
Who Is Helping Dogs With Grain Free Dog Food Research
Fortunately, there are many qualified researchers and veterinarians leading the charge who are not funded by pet food companies. Dr. Joshua Stern, a veterinary cardiologist at the University of California, is one of them.
As part of a Facebook group on the topic, the taurine deficient dilated cardiomyopathy group to which we belong fully supports research involving Taurine-Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy and related causes of DCM from Dr. Stern.
In the group, Dr. Stern made this statement, “An echocardiogram is the gold standard for diagnosing Taurine Deficient DCM. However, taurine deficiency will not be identified by an echocardiogram. The length of time a dog must be deficient prior to developing DCM is unknown and varies from dog to dog. Therefore, if concerned about a diet that you are feeding, the taurine test is a reasonable and appropriate first step. If taurine is normal then the echocardiogram becomes optional. Having a normal echo without a taurine test does not mean that your dog is not taurine deficient and it does not mean that your dog will be free from taurine deficient DCM in the coming weeks, months, or years.”
Keep in mind that transparency is sorely lacking in the pet food industry, which is why we personally feed real, whole food and supplement with brands we trust that we, too, could eat as human beings.
Dr. Karen Becker, founder of Healthy Pets, says that “no one really argues with the fact that in order for optimal health to occur, animals – including humans — must consume the foods they were designed to eat, and preferably whole, fresh and unadulterated. This is known as species-appropriate nutrition. For example, vegetarian animals must eat vegetation for optimal health. Carnivores must eat fresh whole prey for optimal health.
Carnivorous pets have not evolved to digest and assimilate foods like corn, wheat, rice or potatoes – yet these are the very foods the vast majority of pet food manufacturers use as primary ingredients in their formulas.” 
Pets need unadulterated, fresh, whole foods that are moisture dense, she says. What dogs don’t need are grains, fillers, artificial preservatives, colors, additives, chemicals, byproducts, or processed foods.
Dr. Karen Becker often writes that veterinary medicine is the only profession that encourages telling patients to feed their pets processed foods. Dogs’ systems are not designed to process food in this way.
This video pretty much sealed the deal for me, and you should take a peek, too:
Is Kibble Dog Food Bad?
In the early 1950s, the Ralston Purina Company began experimenting with different dog kibble formulas from cereal extruders?! The Pet Food Institute came up with a clever campaign in 1964 telling dog owners that this hard crunchy stuff was what your dog needed to eat. Kibble began with and continues with advertising and marketing campaigns. You could have knocked me over with a dog biscuit when I read that.
You are not a bad person for feeding your dog kibble. No one is a bad dog mom or dog dad for feeding kibble. It should be your choice what to feed your dog. As a responsible pet parent, it’s also your choice to learn the reality of what dogs should be eating instead of extruded cereal bits.
Digestion starts in the mouth, namely with the teeth and saliva. Tartar and plaque feed on sugars. Sugars are in carbs and starches, common to kibble, so there’s that.
What Dog Food Should I Feed My Dog?
If you purchase a dog food in any form, read and understand the first five ingredients. The first five or six ingredients make up what is mostly in that food. Some of the qualities important to us that you may want to consider are:
- No artificial ingredients or preservatives: I want it as fresh as possible without having to cook it myself;
- Nutritious and good for my dog;
- Human grade;
- He likes the taste of it and I can rotate flavors if desired without causing digestive upset
- Made with recognizable ingredients, words I can pronounce or can look up to understand, made with human grade ingredients that are not from rendering plants.
- I am not as concerned with price of food if I know I am feeding quality because I either pay now or pay later in costly medical bills due to an inferior grade of food;
- No ingredients from China (or as little as possible since most vitamins and minerals in dog food come from China).
Today, pet food companies still produce kibble by extrusion because it is fast, easy to do, and better pasteurization. Similarly, it’s fast and easy to run in a store, grab a bag of kibble, and pour it in a dog’s bowl. As a species, we know that fast foods aren’t good for us, as tasty and easy to access as they are. Fresh, human-grade food is what dogs require, but we’d need to go back to the 1800s for that.
With technology and the need for speed, marketing campaigns are feeding and affecting our dogs, the latter not in the best way. The commercial pet food industry is marked by recalls, lack of regulations, savvy commercials, and a ton of health controversies. Don’t we owe it to our dogs to be the person they think we are? Times have changed, let’s catch up for Fido’s sake.
How Can I Have My Dog Tested?
Dr. Joshua Stern is collecting information for the Golden Retriever community and beyond. Please read his report here and how to get involved. You can also read his latest information dated August 9, 2018.
If you believe your dog is showing signs of DCM already – please seek an appointment with a board-certified cardiologist to have an echocardiogram and taurine testing obtained simultaneously – do not change foods, do not supplement prior to the appointment. This is per Dr. Stern.
Dog Mom, Kimberly Meckes, who lives on my street here in Pennsylvania, did this recently. She has her two male, spayed Golden Retrievers checked by a veterinary cardiologist. Both dogs’ taurine levels were low. She had both dogs checked with an echocardiogram. One dog’s echo was clean, while the other showed a genetic mitral valvular endocardosis, not dietary related. Because the taurine levels were low and Goldens are affected, Meckes made a food switch and began taurine supplementation.
With dogs genetically predisposed to DCM, the condition is irreversible,” Dr. Stern told the Washington Post. However, in these new cases, adding taurine to the dogs’ diet (and taking them off legumes) can reverse the disorder if caught early enough.
Renowned veterinarian, Dr. Jean Dodds, updated her Hemopet website with this information: FDA Updates on Heart Disease in Dogs
FDA Investigation into potential link between certain diets and canine dilated cardiomyopathy
We aren’t the only ones investigating the truth about grain-free dog food.
Taurine and Grain-Free Dog Food Additional Resources
Keep up with the studies at UC Davis Veterinary Medicine