Quick Facts: Diet-Related DCM in Pets

You may have heard over the past year or so about pets – mostly dogs – developing a heart disease known as Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) after being fed “grain-free” diets as their primary food source. DCM affects the ability of the heart to effectively pump blood throughout the body, and affected animals may tire quickly, have difficulty breathing, or even experience weakness or collapse. At its worst, the condition can be fatal. As loving pet owners who want to safeguard your pets’ health, it is important for you to have the most up-to-date information available to guide you in your choice of what to feed your cherished companion (as if that choice wasn’t complicated enough already!). Veterinary nutrition and cardiology experts do not yet have all the answers, but here’s what we know so far:

  1. It isn’t just “grain-free” pet foods. Diets that have been implicated so far include BEG (Boutique, Exotic, and Grain-Free) diets – these are often the foods marketed as high-end, healthy foods with limited ingredients and sometimes exotic protein sources like alligator, kangaroo, or venison. Vegetarian and vegan diets have also been associated with the development of DCM in dogs.
  2. While diet-related DCM is being diagnosed primarily in dogs, there are a few confirmed cases of cats being affected as well.
  3. DCM is not uncommon in some dog breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, and Cocker Spaniels, but diet-related DCM is being seen in all breeds (including mixed breeds), ages, and sizes of dogs.
  4. Most cases of DCM have been associated with dry kibble, but any formulation – including canned food, homemade diets, raw food, etc. – can be implicated.
  5. While there is no list of “safe” diets, there are some commonalities of ingredients in the diets associated with the development of DCM: legumes, seeds of legumes (called pulses), and/or potatoes are listed among the main ingredients (that is, the ingredients listed before the first vitamin or mineral ingredient).
  6. As mentioned, it is not only grain-free diets involved, but 90% of the diets identified in the cases studied so far were indeed labelled “grain-free.”
  7. Taurine deficiency in the food is thought to play a role in some cases of diet-related DCM, but not all. If your pet is diagnosed with DCM, it is probably worthwhile to check his/her taurine levels in case supplementation may help with recovery.
  8. If your dog (or cat) develops diet-related DCM, he or she can potentially recover simply by being fed a more traditional pet food containing a well-researched protein source with nutritionally valuable grains.
  9. Initial treatment for diet-related DCM will likely also include heart medications, but these can often be stopped as the heart responds to the new food.
  10. If you are feeding a diet that seems likely to be implicated in the development of DCM because it seems like a healthy choice, you are not alone. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, researchers acknowledge the challenge of choosing from the glut of seemingly healthy, well-marketed, but ultimately poorly understood pet foods: “Pet food marketing has outpaced the science, and owners are not always making healthy, science-based decisions even though they want to do the best for their pets.”

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Written by: Dr. Emily Reiner, DVM