On July 12, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration alerted veterinarians and other dog-care providers that certain dog foods may be causing canine heart disease.

That’s big news.  And it’s heart-breaking for pet parents, too.  Dog owners often devote considerable time and effort to research various dog foods and select one that they believe is best for their Fido.  Although food fads and online sites may be trendy, they may also misguide pet owners in selecting a diet for their four-legged family members.

The FDA has implicated a variety of unconventional dog foods as being associated with canine heart disease.  Many contain potatoes or legumes, such as peas or lentils, and are often marketed as “grain-free,” or have other exotic ingredients as primary components.

Although there are different types of heart disease in dogs, only dilated cardiomyopathy has been associated with the recent diet alert.  This kind of heart disease has a genetic predisposition in certain breeds such as Boxers and Great Danes, but cardiologists have been reporting it with increasing frequency in other canines such as Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Bulldogs, and mixed breeds.  This mirrors the increasing popularity of dog diets from small pet food companies that contain legumes, potatoes, and other unconventional ingredients.

Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, occurs when the heart becomes enlarged and weak.  This decreases the heart’s ability to pump, leading to congestive heart failure.  Medical options for these dogs are limited, and the prognosis is generally not favorable for the inherited form of DCM.

The FDA reports that dogs with diet-related DCM generally consumed their boutique food for months to years.  When changed to a mainstream, scientific-based diet, heart function often improved, sometimes dramatically.  This is compelling information.

What nutrient is the culprit? 

The amino acid taurine was associated with feline DCM thirty years ago.  Low taurine levels have also been implicated in many dogs with diet-related DCM.  However, the story is more complicated than just taurine.  Dogs’ bodies can make taurine from other amino acid precursors.  Some dog food formulations may be deficient in these precursors.  Another theory is that certain ingredients, such as potatoes, legumes, or exotic meats, may affect the dog’s ability to absorb or utilize taurine or its precursors.

Formulating balanced dog food is more complicated than simply reviewing the ingredient list.  The presence of certain ingredients may affect how Fido’s body processes and absorbs other nutrients.  This can lead to deficiencies in the dog, even if the food might appear balanced to pet owners.  The best nutrition for people isn’t necessarily the best for dogs.

What dogs are at risk?

Dogs that are fed diets with potatoes or legumes are at risk.  Other suspect diets include “grain-free,” vegetarian, homemade, or exotic-ingredient diets.  Unusual protein sources, such as unconventional meats, may contain lower levels of taurine or other nutrients that dogs need to stay healthy.

Are “grain-free” diets bad?

Diets labeled as “grain-free” tend to replace grains with potatoes and legumes.  The FDA has associated diets with potatoes and legumes with DCM in dogs.

As dogs evolved from their wild wolf-like ancestors and became domesticated, their digestive tracts evolved and changed, too.  Contrary to popular belief, grains became an important source of nutrition for dogs as they associated closely with humans.  The modern pet dog, including pampered purebred Fidos and designer hybrids such as labradoodles, are well-suited to digest and utilize grains in their diet.

Should the food be tested?

Currently, testing Fido’s food is not recommended.  Low taurine has not been associated with every case of diet-related DCM.  This means the story is still unfolding.  Also, the problem may not be as simple as analyzing the food, but rather understanding how Fido’s body processes certain ingredients.

Can my dog be tested?

Yes, Fido can be tested for heart disease.  This involves listening to the heart with a stethoscope, and performing special tests such as EKG, chest radiographs, or echocardiogram (sonogram of the heart).

Fido can also be tested for taurine deficiency.  This is a blood test.

What dogs should be tested?

Veterinary nutritionists and cardiologists are recommending checking blood taurine levels in dogs with DCM, or other unidentified forms of heart disease.  Dogs that are fed a boutique, “grain-free,” homemade, vegetarian, or exotic-ingredient diet are also candidates for having taurine levels checked.

How to feed Fido for a health heart?

Choosing a scientific-based, mainstream diet with conventional ingredients is the safest choice for your dog.  As of this writing, diet-related DCM has not been associated with these dog foods.  They have a long track record of providing good nutrition for dogs, from pet food companies that scientifically evaluate the food and perform feeding trials.  Avoid inadvertently testing novel formulations with your Fido.  Otherwise, nutritional problems such as diet-related heart disease can result.