Do Grain-Free Diets Cause Heart Disease In Dogs?

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Grain-free dog food grew in popularity when dog parents realized that many corn, wheat, and grain fillers in dog food provided little nutritional value to their pups. Many cheap, unnecessary additives contribute to food sensitivities, allergies, obesity, and digestive problems. While grain-free dog food is best for dogs who have allergies or sensitivities to grains, many dog parents started buying it due to its popularity. Unfortunately, in 2018, some controversy arose about grain-free dog food when the FDA launched an investigation to see if grain-free dog food was related to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

So, can grain-free dog food cause DCM? Keep reading to find out what the FDA discovered during their investigation.

What is DCM?

Canine DCM is a heart disease that causes an enlarged heart. With a dilated heart and chambers, it becomes more difficult for the dog’s heart to pump, and fluids may leak from the heart valve. While it can be improved with veterinary care if caught early, it’s a severe condition that could lead to heart failure.

To this day, the exact cause of DCM is unknown. It’s thought to be related to genetics to some extent since it’s most common in large and giant breeds. However, with the rise in DCM cases, experts have explored other potential causes, such as diets.

Checking Shih Tzu heart

Symptoms of DCM in Dogs

Dogs with DCM may experience the following symptoms:

  • Rapid breathing even when resting
  • Restless sleeping
  • Troubles breathing
  • Coughing or gagging
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fainting

If you suspect that your dog may have DCM, contact your vet right away.

Why Might DCM Be Related to Grain-Free Dog Food?

During the investigation, the FDA found a potential link between DCM and grain-free foods. More specifically, it involved dry dog food that had peas, lentils, or other legume seeds as one of the top ingredients. Once this investigation was announced, there was an increase in reports of dogs with DCM, so vets made notes about each dog’s information and lifestyle. There was a total of 524 dogs and cats reported to be diagnosed with DCM between January 2014 and April 2019.

Of the reported cases, almost all the dogs were on a dry dog food diet. 91% were on a grain-free diet and 93% of the diets were rich in peas and/or lentils. Some common brands of these reported cases included Acana, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, 4Health, Earthborn Holistic, and Blue Buffalo. The FDA also considered the proteins in the food, but there was a wide variety of flavors involved. Chicken and lamb were the most popular protein sources.

Of the breeds tested, many of them weren’t initially thought to be at a high risk for DCM, such as Golden Retrievers, Mixed Breeds, and Shih Tzus. However, some research suggests that Golden Retrievers, who were the most common breed in this study, may be genetically predisposed to a taurine deficiency, making them more likely to develop DCM.

Due to this information, the FDA suspected there could be a link between DCM cases and diets. However, they couldn’t confirm if the diets were the direct or only cause. Thus, many dog parents and vets seemed divided on the issue.

Dog eating kibble

Most Recent Update About DCM and Grain-Free Dog Food

The latest update on this investigation occurred on December 23rd, 2023. The FDA announced that they don’t plan to share more updates unless there is meaningful new information. They were unable to determine if the DCM cases were directly linked to specific diets.

“FDA has followed up on a subset of these reports, but is unable to investigate every report to verify or confirm the reported information,” the FDA wrote. “While adverse event numbers can be a potential signal of an issue with an FDA-regulated product, by themselves, they do not supply sufficient data to establish a causal relationship with the reported product(s). FDA continues to encourage research and collaboration by academia, veterinarians, and industry.”

So, unfortunately, the FDA still doesn’t have a clear answer for what causes DCM in dogs. What is certain though is that DCM is dangerous and potentially deadly for dogs, so if your dog is showing symptoms, visit a vet right away.

Should You Feed Your Dog Grain-Free Food?

Whether or not you should feed your dog grain-free food is ultimately up to you. Grain-free food can be great for dogs who are sensitive or allergic to grains. Some picky dogs may prefer grain-free food over food with grains. Whatever the reason, it’s okay to give your dog grain-free food if you think that’s what’s best for them.

However, it’s also okay to be wary of grain-free food. If you’re worried about the food causing DCM in your dog, there are plenty of healthy dog food brands with grains in them. Grains can be beneficial for dogs when used correctly in a dog food recipe. So, if your dog is not sensitive to grains, choosing a food with grains is likely the better option. Most dog food brands have both grain and grain-free options, so it’s easy to switch from one to the other if needed.

Serving food to Beagle

Healthy Dog Food That Contains Grains

If you want to make sure your dog is eating healthy food that has grains in it, there are lots of great brands to choose from, such as the following.

1. Ollie Fresh Dog Food

Ollie Fresh Dog Food
  • Fresh food with human-grade ingredients
  • Personalized to fit your dog’s needs
  • Made with real meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains
  • Shipped to your door on a schedule

Ollie’s fresh food is much different than the grain-free kibble that many dogs eat. It’s made with fresh, human-grade ingredients that are personalized to fit your dog’s needs. To get started, you’ll fill out your dog’s information so Ollie can suggest a portion and recipe based on your dog’s needs and preferences. Each recipe has real meat, fruit, vegetables, and grains in it, and you can see the ingredients in the fresh food. The food is shipped right to your door, and it can be stored in the freezer and then moved to the fridge to thaw before serving. You can feel safe serving it to your dog because it’s catered to your dog’s needs with quality ingredients.

2. Redbarn Whole Grain Land Recipe

Redbarn Whole Grain Land Recipe
  • Whole grain kibble recipe
  • Includes animal protein as the first five ingredients
  • Good for your dog’s digestion, heart, immune system, skin, and coat
  • Free from peas and lentils

Kibble is the most popular and often the most convenient dog food type, and there are plenty of quality brands with grains. Redbarn’s Whole Grain Land Recipe is a healthy meal that’s packed with protein. The first five ingredients are beef, lamb, beef meal, pork meal, and lamb meal, so even after being cooked, there’s lots of animal protein in this dry food. It can benefit your dog’s digestion, heart, immune system, skin, and coat due to its beneficial ingredients like probiotics, omega fatty acids, flaxseed, and taurine. It’s also free from lentils and peas just to be safe.

3. Sundays Food for Dogs

Sundays Food for Dogs
  • Air-dried fresh food to preserve nutrients and flavor
  • Vet-formulated
  • Avoids legumes and potatoes, includes gluten-free grains instead
  • Good for digestion, antioxidants, skin, coat, and joints

Sundays is a convenient form of fresh food that’s shelf-stable like kibble. The natural, human-grade ingredients are air-dried to preserve their flavor and nutrients. Plus, the recipes are made by vets so you can feel confident in what your dog is eating. It’s good for digestion, antioxidants, joints, skin, and coat. Sundays has made it clear that they don’t use any legumes or potatoes in their recipes. Instead, they include small amounts of gluten-free grains to ensure your pup still gets healthy grains in their diet.

4. The Honest Kitchen Turkey, Duck, & Root Veggies Pâté

The Honest Kitchen Turkey, Duck, & Root Veggies Pâté
  • Wet food for picky eaters
  • Can be used as a full meal or a topper
  • Vet-recommended
  • Made with human-grade ingredients that dogs love

For dogs who are picky eaters, wet food can be a pleasant change from dry food. The Honest Kitchen’s wet food can make a great meal for your dog or it can be used as a food topper to enhance your dog’s current food. It’s a vet-recommended recipe with human-grade ingredients. While it has healthy grains, it avoids common allergens like corn, wheat, and soy. If your dog isn’t a fan of turkey and duck, there are other formulas that use beef and/or lamb instead. All the formulas are great for picky eaters.

5. Open Farm RawMix Open Prairie Ancient Grains

Open Farm RawMix Open Prairie Ancient Grains
  • Mix of coated kibble and freeze-dried raw chunks
  • Great for picky eaters
  • Made with nutrient-dense meat, organs, and bones from humanely-raised sources
  • Includes sustainably-sourced, non GMO grains, fruits and vegetables

Open Farm offers a variety of types of food, including dry food, wet food, freeze-dried raw, and gently cooked. However, their RawMix formulas are some of the most popular. It’s a blend of protein-packed kibble and freeze-dried raw chunks. The kibble is coated in nutritious bone broth and freeze-dried raw coating to enhance the flavor and nutrition. The recipes include nutrient-dense meat, organs, and bones, followed by non-GMO grains, fruits, and vegetables. All the ingredients are humanely raised and sustainably sourced.

Final Thoughts

Grain-free dog food has stirred up a lot of controversy in recent years due to its potential link to DCM. The FDA couldn’t confirm that diet was the direct cause of the reported DCM cases, but many dog parents are still cautious. Whether or not you should give your dog grain-free foods depends on their needs, so if that’s the only type of food they do well on, don’t feel bad for feeding it to them. But there are plenty of healthy foods with grains in them that dogs can thrive on.

So, when it comes to choosing the right type of dog food, consider your dog’s individual preferences and needs when making a decision. Also, keep an eye out for alerts from the FDA in the future as there’s always new information about dog products.

iHeartDogs is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you.

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