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UC Davis study shows grain-free and other “boutique” diets associated with heart disease in dogs

Petco-displayOne of the benefits of living in Davis is having a world-class veterinary research center right down the road, one that produces research like the work highlighted in the article “Dogs Fed Some Popular Diets Could Be at Risk of Heart Disease.”  Yet the more that I learn about this research, the more I realize how resistant people are to the message.

The rough idea is this: researchers have found a relatively recent increase in the number of dogs diagnosed with Taurine-Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM).  DCM is a disease of the heart muscle that leads to reduced heart pumping function and increased heart size, and it can result in severe consequences such as congestive heart failure or sudden cardiac death.  Researchers are still trying to isolate the exact cause, but it has been associated with grain-free diets, raw diets, and foods that contain exotic ingredients like peas and lentils.  It is not yet known why these foods would lead to low taurine and DCM, but adding taurine (an amino acid) to the dog’s diet does not seem to help.  (More details here).

So, the cautious approach would seem to be to avoid feeding dogs these boutique and grain-free foods until researchers figure things out further.  What should dogs eat, then?  A Facebook group which is facilitating the gathering of data and exchange of information among researchers is currently recommending Purina Pro Plan, Hills Science Diet, Royal Canin, Eukanuba, and Iams.

Yet some people gasp at the very thought.  These brands are considered by many to be “junk” food – full of grains (“fillers”) and “byproducts.”  Unfortunately, that attitude isn’t just held by individuals; it is increasingly the attitude of pet food stores, too.  I spoke with an employee at our local Petco the other day who made a face when I asked if they carried Iams.  Indeed, they have stopped carrying Iams and will soon be phasing out Eukanuba.  The employee told me that Petco will only be carrying foods that are “natural” and do not contain any “byproducts.”  She likened Iams and Eukanuba to the food that one gets at McDonalds.  Instead, Petco is promoting the exact same foods that are statistically associated with taurine-deficient DCM (see photo at beginning of this post for an example).

But here’s the thing.  Companies like Purina, who Petco and others shun, have been testing their dog foods for years.  Their foods are not statistically associated with taurine-deficient DCM.  In contrast, many of the boutique brands do not test their foods.  The results have been devastating.

What about those grains and byproducts, though?  Surely dogs shouldn’t be eating those?  Well, why not?  Byproducts often contain organ meat like heart and kidney, which are good sources of taurine.  As for grains, there is evidence that dogs evolved from wolves by eating human garbage rather than through a deliberate human-caused domestication process, and that in this process they evolved genes that allow dogs to digest starches better than wolves can.

The thing is, if you think that dogs should be eating grain-free, raw, or other sorts of “boutique” untested diets, you have to ask yourself why you think that.  Is that what makes sense to you, or is that what our current scientific understanding says?

Sometimes what makes sense to us is not in fact the right thing. 

For anyone that still has doubts, I encourage you to join the Facebook group linked above.  There you will find many sad stories of pet owners who thought just like you, either with dogs who died or dogs who are seriously ill.  Many are still struggling with the decision to change to dog foods that they formerly thought of as junk.  They thought they were doing the right thing, and now they have found out that they weren’t.   It takes a big mental shift to admit that.

If nothing else changes your mind, I hope reading those stories does.


Luanna Villanueva

Thank you, Roberta, for this valuable information about DCM in dogs and certain dog foods. I am currently revising my feeding plan. My problem now is the three bags of grain free dry food and the three cases of grain free canned food on my shelf. I think I’ll mix their recommended food with with the grain free until it’s gone.

Roberta L. Millstein

I'm glad you found it helpful, Luanna. Good luck with the dog food switch.

Roberta L. Millstein


"Hill’s Pet Nutrition Voluntarily Recalls Select Canned Dog Food for Excessive Vitamin D"


Ron Meserve

All boutique foods mentioned are tested and approved by AAFCO. Just Food for Dogs has research that argues we may have been under supplementing Taurine in petfood. I think it's interesting that a research institution that receives funding from the food companies others call "junk", Mars and Colgate Palmolive, are shed in a good light. Correlation does not mean causation. Informal fallacy of logic 101. I question if the grain industry and rendering industry are not the ones to benefit from a loosely fit blame. The pet food industry is a case of the wolves guarding the hen house. Is this not a Lipid Hypothesis all over again. In math if you divide the number of dogs with DCM by all the 77million or so dogs in the US, you get a number we like to call zero. Not a great sample size by any means. Just because the number of reports has increased does not mean all dogs are at risk. Seems the issue is much deeper than Legumes block Taurine absorption. Maybe AAFCO needs to change it's standards and have some real oversight and stricter regulations. But again, would that benefit the grain and rendering industry, What about feed grade proteins and grains with their inherent Mycotoxins?

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