DCM and grain free diets - what you need to know
30 August 2019
Recent media coverage of a series of reports released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US is creating concern about feeding your pets, dogs in particular, grain free diets resulting in the dogs developing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). While no strong link between the two is known to date, pet owners are likely to be reevaluating the type of diet they are feeding their pet companions.
Below we break down what DCM is, how nutrition can play a role in managing the risk of your pet developing the disease and what you can do as a pet owner.
What is dilated cardiomyopathy?
Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, is a disease of the heart that causes the heart muscle to weaken and enlarge. The walls of the heart become thin and the heart valves may leak, causing fluid to build up in the animal’s chest. The heart is then unable to pump enough blood to the tissues and lungs, resulting in heart failure.
Animals that are experiencing DCM may begin to lose energy, may develop a cough and have difficulty breathing.
Animals diagnosed with DCM have shown deficiencies in taurine. Over 30 years ago, the link between cats being deficient in taurine and DCM was discovered. While cats cannot make their own taurine, most dogs are able to generate enough taurine from other amino acids in their diets.
However, specific breeds, or lines, of dogs are not able to produce enough taurine or use taurine supplied in their diet effectively due to a genetic condition. These breeds include:
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- English Setters
- Irish Wolfhounds
- Doberman Pinschers
- Great Danes
- Saint Bernards
- Golden Retrievers
- Portuguese Water Dogs
- Cocker Spaniels
Supplementing these breeds of dogs with taurine, by feeding specific taurine enriched diets, is the usual course of prevention and/or treatment of DCM.
Supplementing your pet’s diet with taurine
Protein is a key nutrient required for growth and maintenance of body structures, like muscles, is fundamental for metabolic reactions in cells, and is available as a source of energy. Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, link in specific combinations to determine the how the protein is used by the animal.
Some amino acids are essential – the animal cannot make the required amount - and provided through dietary sources. Amino acids produced in adequate amounts by the animal are non-essential.
The amino acid taurine plays a key role in many metabolic functions – proper digestion of fats, the regulation of hormones, immune system support and regulation of heart cell function to name a few. In most animals, taurine is the result of combining the amino acids methionine and cysteine. The production of taurine also relies on other amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and specific enzymes. If there is a deficiency or shortage or misfiring in any step of the cycle, this would affect the production of taurine.
Taurine is an essential amino acid for cats, as they are not able to make enough to support normal function. Most dogs can adequately generate enough taurine for their requirements, provided they are not deficient in other nutrients involved in its creation.
As mentioned above, specific breeds of dogs – mostly large or giant breeds – are not able to produce adequate amounts of taurine naturally for what they need. Therefore, they require specific diets formulated to include supplemental taurine. Meat based diets are good sources of supplemental taurine or the amino acid can be added directly to the diet.
It should be noted that supplemental taurine in a diet that is completed and balanced does not have a negative impact on the acceptability of the diets by the animal.
What can you do as a pet owner?
If you suspect that your pet is showing symptoms of DCM and you have been feeding a grain free diet, consult with a veterinarian to determine a course of treatment. Some grain free diets are fine with high meat based protein levels and some added taurine.
Sources of information:
Backus, R.C., G.Cohen, P.D.Pion, K.L.Good, Q.R.Rogers and A.J.Fascetti. 2003. Taurine deficiency in Newfounlands fed commercially available complete and balanced diets. JAVMA. 223(8):1130-1136.
Bélanger, M.C., M.Ouellet, G.Queney and M.Moreau. 2005. Taurine-deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy in a Family of Golden Retrievers. J.Am.Anim.Hosp.Assoc. 41:284-291
Freeman, L.M., J.A.Stern, R.Fries, D.B.Adin and J.E.Rush. 2018. Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know? JAVMA. 253(11):1390-1394.
Kaplan, J.L., J.A.Stern, A.J.Fascetti, J.A.Larsen, H.Skolnik, G.D.Peddle, R.D.Kienle, A.Waxman, M.Cocchiaro, C.T.Gunther-Harrington, T.Klose, K.LaFauci, B.Lefbom, M.Machen Lamy, R.Malakoff, S.Nishimura, M.Oldach, S.Rosenthal, C.Statuhammer, L.O’Sullivan, L.C.Visser, R.William and E.Ontiveros. 2018. Taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy in golden retrievers fed commercial diets. PLoS ONE 13(12):1-19.
Kramer, G.A., M.D.Kittleson, P.R.Fox, J.Lewis and P.D.Pion. 1995. Plasma taurine concentrations in normal dogs and in dogs with heart disease. J.Vet.Intern.Med. 9:253:258.
Mansilla, W.D., C.P.F. Marinangeli, K.J.Ekenstedt, J.A.Larsen, G.Aldrich, D.A.Columbus, L.Weber, S.K.Abood and A.K.Shoveller. 2019. Special topic: The association between pulse ingredients and canine dilated cardiomyopathy: addressing the knowledge gaps before establishing causation. J. Anim. Sci. 97:983-997.
Pion, P.D., M.D.Kittleson, Q.R.Rogers and J.G.Morris. 1987. Myocardial Failure in Cats Associated with Low Plasma Taurine: A Reversible Cardiomyopathy. Science. 237 (4816):764-768.
Ripps, H. and W.Shen. 2012. Review: Taurine: A “very essential” amino acid. Molecular Vision. 18:2673-2686.
Tôrres, C.L., R.C.Bachus, A.J.Fascetti and Q.R.Rogers. 2003. Taurine status in normal dogs fed a commercial diet associated with taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy. J.Anim.Physiol.a.Anim.Nutr. 87:359-372.