Low-Protein Dog Foods Linked To Devastating Canine Heart Disease

Though the link needs to be confirmed, food products with inadequate levels of the amino acid taurine may be responsible for a wave of recent DCM cases. Kamelevska Tatiana/Shutterstock

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), certain types of grain-free pet food may be causing a potentially fatal canine heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy.

“We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients,” Dr Martine Hartogensis, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Surveillance and Compliance, said in an agency statement.


“These reports are highly unusual as they are occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease. The FDA is investigating the potential link between DCM and these foods. We encourage pet owners and veterinarians to report DCM cases in dogs who are not predisposed to the disease.”

Thought to arise from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, DCM is characterized by an expansion of the ventricles – two of the mammalian heart’s four chambers – accompanied by thinning of the ventricular walls. This damage impairs the organ’s blood-pumping ability, leading to inadequate oxygen supply to the rest of the body, and in some cases, accumulation of blood in the lungs. Weakness, lethargy, coughing, labored breathing, and an inability to move are some of the devastating symptoms owners observe. Often, the physiological stress will eventually trigger a heart attack.

If caught early, however, dogs that are given proper medication and a special diet may live for many more years.

Large and so-called giant dog breeds, such as Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Boxers, Saint Bernards, and Doberman Pinschers appear to be at a naturally higher risk of DCM, though the condition also occurs frequently in the rather petite Cocker Spaniel. Yet puzzlingly, veterinarians across the US have been seeing unprecedented cases in pure and mixed breeds, including Golden and Labrador Retrievers, a Whippet, a Shih Tzu, a Bulldog, and Miniature Schnauzers.


When examining the recent string of cases, cardiac specialist vets discovered a telling common thread: Each dog was fed a low-meat, grain-free diet primarily based on the aforementioned legume or tuber ingredients.

Though the link has yet to be confirmed, past research has indicated that DCM may be caused by a deficiency in taurine, an amino acid that is crucial to biochemical reactions in the heart, brain, breasts, gallbladder, and kidneys. Adult mammals can produce their own taurine, meaning it is not one of the nine essential amino acids, but it is suspected that dietary sources – animal and fish protein – are still necessary for adequate levels.

Until we have definitive answers, the FDA urges dog owners to consult with a vet before changing their dog’s diet. Updates of the agency's investigations will be released as available.


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