Grain-Free Diets May Be Dangerous for Your Dog

Could your dog’s expensive, grain-free food be causing heart disease?

By Jennifer Grant

We buy grain-free dog food because we are trying to provide the best for our fur babies. Walk the aisles of any pet supply store and you’ll find the latest in protein-rich offerings marketed as a return to the natural canine diet. Unfortunately, certain types of grain-free dog foods may be causing a heart condition called, “canine dilated cardiomyopathy” (DCM).

The grain-free products under scrutiny include those with the following ingredients: potato, legumes, peas, and lentils.

Grain free food being fed to uncertain lab

Image: Jaromir Chalabala

Canine dilated cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart is enlarged and therefore unable to properly pump. Pressure then builds within the heart, causing the muscles to stretch and become dysfunctional. In the worst case scenario, it can result in congestive heart failure. Symptoms of impending heart failure include: shortness of breath, swollen belly due to fluid accumulation, blue gums due to lack of oxygen flow, fainting due to blocked vessels, and extreme weight loss as your dog loses the ability to store body fat.

According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, afflicted dogs can develop sudden irregular heart rhythms that can be deadly.

DCM pug eating from a dish

Image: Africa Studio

It is not unusual for larger breed dogs to have heart failure, including: Irish Wolfhounds. Newfoundlands, Dobermans, Boxers and Great Danes. This is due to an inherited predisposition. The alarm was raised, however, after an unusually high number of dogs without a genetic connection began to experience heart failure.

The FDA has decided to investigate grain-free foods after an unusually high number of reports from CVCA, a conglomerate of 19 vet cardiologists working in Washington DC.  The group reported that there was a significant uptick in heart failure for small and mid size breeds, including: Shih Tzu, Miniature Schnauzers, Labs, and some mixed breeds.

Close up of Newfoundland dog black

Image: Pandas

Dr. Nartine Hartogenesis, the deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine Office of Surveillance and Compliance released a statement in late July 2018 saying, “These reports are highly unusual as they are are occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease.”

The common factor among all of the cases of DCM that were not genetically connected, were nutritional. All patients had a diet heavy on peas, chickpeas, lentils, and potatoes. These are the fillers that typically replace grains for “grain-free” dog food.

Image: Budimir Jevtic

The New York Times reports: Other veterinary cardiologists have also noticed the phenomenon. “The first clue for us was when we saw a household with two unrelated miniature Schnauzers with D.C.M.,” said Darcy Adin, a veterinary cardiologist who teaches at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “They were both eating the same boutique, exotic protein, grain-free diet.”

Image: Every Dog Has a Story

The very thought that the conscientious diet you have painstakingly researched and purchased at a significant expense is actually harming your loved one is gut wrenching. The truth is, grains are an important protein source and no ill health effects have ever been associated with grains, except for the case of an allergy.

If we look back in time, the grain-free craze first took hold just after a massive recall of pet food that had been contaminated with melamine (2007). Marketers took the opportunity to target worried pet owners with food that was more nutritionally familiar.  Now when we read the list of ingredients on the side of bag, it makes us feel like we are making a healthy choice for our pet when we see things we would eat, like peas and legumes. Perhaps we’ve been duped for dollars.


Image: Megan Betteridge

Any diet, especially for dogs afflicted with DCM, should be created in consultation with your vet.  Don’t panic about the investigation, but inform yourself of the signs of DCM, and consider that many dogs thrive on a diet that includes traditional grains. You should always buy from a company that has researched its food and provides nutritional expertise and quality ingredients.