Diet-Associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs by Alexis Patinos


The health food industry has picked up plenty of rapport in the last few years as more and more Americans are making a conscious decision to consume healthier foods. While some of the diets have factual evidence behind their claims to boosting metabolism, help consumers lose weight, or build lean muscle, some diets are undoubtedly marketing gimmicks that capitalize on the consumer’s lack of knowledge in the quickly growing health food industry. Regardless of where one may fall on this spectrum in regards to their own diets, recent studies in the animal health industry have shown that pet parents are starting to apply similar diet alterations to their four-legged companions. However, are the diets that benefit you really beneficial to your pet? We believe your pet’s diet should be left to the experts - veterinarians - and here is why.


Although some experts still debate whether domesticated dogs are considered omnivores or carnivores like their wolf ancestors, for our sake, we are going to err on the side of domesticated dogs being omnivorous eaters. As we learned in grade school, omnivores are those animals that eat both meat and plant-based material. While most high-quality canine diets have meat protein sources listed as the main ingredients, it is important to note that these diets still include grain sources in their diet formulations. However, what are the effects of the growing trend of going totally grain free, or substituting an exotic protein source for the traditional chicken or beef in a canine diet?


In 2018 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began investigating cases of heart disease in dogs that were potentially linked to their diet. Specifically, they are examining dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, and its relationship with dogs being fed BEG diets (boutique, exotic, and grain-free). DCM is a disease of the heart muscle affecting its ability to pump and contract. The chambers of the heart can become enlarged and as the disease worsens, the heart’s ability to function as a pump to deliver blood and oxygen to the body deteriorates. It can also cause congestion of blood in the lungs and fluid accumulation in and around the heart, abdomen, or lungs. This enlarged, overloaded heart can ultimately result in congestive heart failure and potentially premature or even sudden death - a loss no pet owner wants to experience prematurely.


Signs of DCM vary from exercise intolerance, weight loss, and lethargy early in the disease to increased respiratory rate and effort, coughing, and weakness. More severe signs include respiratory distress, a tongue that is blue in color, abdominal distension, and collapse. The incidence of DCM increases with age and is thought to be genetically linked in certain large type breeds such as the Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Saint Bernard, Irish Wolfhound, and Cocker Spaniel to name a few.


The FDA diet study is focused on diets whose main ingredients include peas, lentils, other legumes, and potatoes as substitutes for traditional grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Exotic proteins including lamb, venison, bison, salmon, and kangaroo and vegan or vegetarian canine diets are also being investigated. The FDA and veterinarians alike have noted what appears to be an increased occurrence of DCM in dog breeds who are not predisposed to the condition and who are being fed BEG diets, however, there is currently no definitive link between grain-free diets or exotic proteins and the occurrence of DCM.


What we do know is that nutritional deficiencies of taurine and carnitine have been linked to the incidence of DCM, however, some veterinary nutritionists believe there are also other dietary factors that can contribute to the occurrence of DCM. With a higher incidence of DCM correlating with the recent changes in canine diets being marketed to consumers, BEG diets have been under heavy investigation for their potential contribution to increased incidents of DCM in non-predisposed breeds. The FDA, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and American Kennel Club (AKC) all shed light on the importance of pet owners being aware of the FDA investigation taking place and further encourage pet owners to seek professional guidance from a veterinarian before making diet changes for their pet.

In a time where we want to be healthier than ever, it’s only fitting that we would want the same for our pets. With many new exotic and trendy diet modifications making their way into the pet food industry, it can be easy to fall allure to a fancy, boutique brand of dog food without knowing the nutritional profile demanded by your pet. With little modern research on the nutritional relevance of some of these exotic ingredients included in the popular BEG diets, we believe you should leave your pet’s diet modifications to the experts, veterinarians and animal nutritionists, when it comes to finding a well-balanced diet that provides your canine companion with the nutrients needed to live a long, healthy life.