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A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients

Earlier this year, Peanut, a 4-year-old male Beagle/Lab mix was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart disease at our hospital.  Peanut had been lethargic, not eating well, and occasionally coughing.  The veterinary cardiologist seeing him asked what he was eating and found that his owner, in a desire to do the best thing for Peanut, was feeding a boutique, grain-free diet containing kangaroo and chickpeas.  Peanut required several medications to treat his heart failure but the owner also changed his diet.  And today, now 5 months later, Peanut’s heart is nearly normal!

Heart disease is common in our companion animals, affecting 10-15% of all dogs and cats, with even higher rates in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, and Boxer dogs.  Most nutritional recommendations focus on treating dogs and cats with heart disease and there is much less information on the role of diet in causing heart disease.  However, a recent increase in heart disease in dogs eating certain types of diets may shed light on the role of diet in causing heart disease.  It appears that diet may be increasing dogs’ risk for heart disease because owners have fallen victim to the many myths and misperceptions about pet food.  If diet proves to be the cause, this truly is heart-breaking to me.

In my 20 years as a veterinary nutritionist, I’ve seen vast improvements in our knowledge about pet nutrition, in the quality of commercial pet foods, and in our pets’ nutritional health (other than the unfortunate rise in obesity).  However, in the last few years I’ve seen more cases of nutritional deficiencies due to people feeding unconventional diets, such as unbalanced home-prepared diets, raw diets, vegetarian diets, and boutique commercial pet foods.  The pet food industry is a competitive one, with more and more companies joining the market every year.  Marketing is a powerful tool for selling pet foods and has initiated and expanded fads, that are unsupported by nutritional science, including grain-free and exotic ingredient diets.  All this makes it difficult for pet owners to know what is truly the best food for their pet (as opposed to the one with the loudest or most attractive marketing).  Because of the thousands of diet choices, the creative and persuasive advertising, and the vocal opinions on the internet, pet owners aren’t able to know if the diets they’re feeding have nutritional deficiencies or toxicities – or could potentially even cause heart disease.

Dilated cardiomyopathy

Dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM occurs in cats where it is associated with a nutritional deficiency (see below).  DCM is a serious disease of the heart muscle which causes the heart to beat more weakly and to enlarge.  DCM can result in abnormal heart rhythms, congestive heart failure (a build-up of fluid in the lungs or abdomen), or sudden death.  In dogs, it typically occurs in large- and giant-breeds, such as Doberman pinschers, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, and Great Danes, where it is thought to have a genetic component.  Recently, some veterinary cardiologists have been reporting increased rates of DCM in dogs – in both the typical breeds and in breeds not usually associated with DCM, such as Miniature Schnauzers or French Bulldogs.  There is suspicion that the disease is associated with eating boutique or grain-free diets, with some of the dogs improving when their diets are changed.  The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine and veterinary cardiologists are currently investigating this issue.

Is diet the cause?

It’s not yet clear if diet is causing this issue.  The first thought was a deficiency of an amino acid called taurine.  DCM used to be one of the most common heart diseases in cats but in 1987, it was discovered that feline DCM was caused by insufficient taurine in the diet.  It was shown that DCM in cats could be reversed with taurine supplementation, and now all reputable commercial cat foods contain enough taurine to prevent the development of this lethal disease.  We still occasionally see taurine deficiency-induced DCM in cats but it is usually when owners are feeding a vegetarian or home-prepared diet, supplemental diets, or a diet made by a manufacturer with inadequate nutritional expertise or quality control.

In dogs, Golden Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels were found to be at risk for DCM caused by taurine deficiency, and one study showed that Cocker Spaniels with DCM improved when given taurine supplementation.  Since then, additional studies have shown associations between dietary factors and taurine deficiency in dogs, such as lamb, rice bran, high fiber diets, and very low protein diets.  And certain other breeds were found to be at increased risk for taurine deficiency and DCM, including Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, English Setters, Irish Wolfhounds, and Portuguese Water Dogs.  The reasons for taurine deficiency in dogs are not completely understood but could be reduced production of taurine due to dietary deficiency or reduced bioavailability of taurine or its building blocks, increased losses of taurine in the feces, or altered metabolism of taurine in the body.

No matter what the reason, the number of dogs with taurine deficiency and DCM subjectively appeared to decrease since the early 2000’s.  However, recently, some astute cardiologists noticed higher rates of DCM including Golden retrievers and in some atypical dog breeds.  They also noticed that both the typical and atypical breeds were more likely to be eating boutique or grain-free diets, and diets with exotic ingredients – kangaroo, lentils, duck, pea, fava bean, buffalo, tapioca, salmon, lamb, barley, bison, venison, and chickpeas.  Even some vegan diets have been associated.  It has even been seen in dogs eating raw or home-prepared diets.

So, is this latest rash of DCM caused by taurine deficiency?  Most of these affected dogs were eating boutique, grain-free, or exotic ingredient diets.  Some of the dogs had low taurine levels and improved with taurine supplementation.  But even some of those dogs that were not taurine deficient improved with taurine supplementation and diet change.  Fortunately, cardiologists reported the issue to the FDA which is currently investigating this issue.  [Note: Dr. Joshua Stern from the University of California Davis is conducting research on taurine deficiency and DCM in Golden Retrievers.

It’s not so simple

Currently, it seems that there may be two separate problems occurring – one related to taurine deficiency and a separate and yet unknown problem (with a third group of dogs likely having DCM completely unrelated to diet).  Identifying the potential dietary factors contributing to DCM in the non-taurine deficient dogs is more difficult, but the FDA and cardiologists are hard at work trying to solve it.  What seems to be consistent is that it does appear to be more likely to occur in dogs eating boutique, grain-free, or exotic ingredient diets.

Exotic ingredients are on the rise

Why are pet owners feeding these exotic ingredients?  I think is it primarily because pet owners are falling victim to marketing which portrays exotic ingredients as more natural or healthier than typical ingredients.  There is no truth to this marketing – and there is no evidence that these ingredients are any more natural or healthier than more typical ingredients.  This is just good marketing that preys on our desire to do the best for our pets.

There is no proof that grain-free is better!

Many pet owners have, unfortunately, also bought into the grain-free myth.  The fact is that food allergies are very uncommon, so there’s no benefit of feeding pet foods containing exotic ingredients.  And while grains have been accused on the internet of causing nearly every disease known to dogs, grains do not contribute to any health problems and are used in pet food as a nutritious source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Exotic ingredients are more difficult to use

Not only are the more exotic ingredients unnecessary, they also require the manufacturer to have much more nutritional expertise to be nutritious and healthy. Exotic ingredients have different nutritional profiles and different digestibility than typical ingredients, and also have the potential to affect the metabolism of other nutrients.  For example, the bioavailability and metabolism of taurine is different in a lamb-based diet compared to a chicken-based diet or can be affected by the amount and types of fiber in the diet.

Small pet food manufacturers might be better at marketing than at nutrition and quality control

Making high quality, nutritious pet food is not easy!  It’s more than using a bunch of tasty-sounding ingredients.  The right nutrients in the right proportions have to be in the diet, the effects of processing (or not processing) the food need to be considered, and the effects of all the other ingredients in the food need to be addressed, in addition to ensuring rigorous quality control and extensive testing. Not every manufacturer can do this.

How could diet be increasing the risk for DCM?

What is the consistent factor between the diets being implicated in diet-related DCM?  It may be related to companies’ inadequate nutritional expertise or rigorous quality control.  We published a study several years ago in which we measured a single nutrient in 90 canned cat foods that all claimed to be nutritionally complete and balanced.  We found that 15% of the diets were deficient in that nutrient (all of those diets were made by small companies).  If companies don’t have the quality control to ensure all nutrients are at the minimum levels, deficiencies could occur and could contribute to DCM.  However, these problems could also be related to problems with bioavailability or interaction with other ingredients in the diet (especially the more exotic ingredients, which are not as well studied or understood).  And DCM could even be the result of an ingredient in the diet that is toxic to the heart.  The FDA is investigating this potential association between diet and DCM but, in the meantime, there are some things you can do.

What should you do?
•Reconsider your dog’s diet. If you’re feeding a boutique, grain-free, or exotic ingredient diets, I would reassess whether you could change to a diet with more typical ingredients made by a company with a long track record of producing good quality diets.  And do yourself a favor –  stop reading the ingredient list!  Although this is the most common way owners select their pets’ food, it is the least reliable way to do so.  And be careful about currently available pet food rating websites that rank pet foods either on opinion or on based on myths and subjective information. It’s important to use more objective criteria (e.g., research, nutritional expertise, quality control in judging a pet food). The best way to select what is really the best food for your pet is to ensure the manufacturer has excellent nutritional expertise and rigorous quality control standards (see our “Questions you should be asking about your pet’s food” post).
•If you’re feeding your dog a boutique, grain-free, or exotic ingredient diet, watch for early signs of heart disease – weakness, slowing down, less able to exercise, short of breath, coughing, or fainting. Your veterinarian will listen for a heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythm and may do additional tests (or send you to see a veterinary cardiologist), such as x-rays, blood tests, electrocardiogram, or ultrasound of the heart (echocardiogram).
•If your dog is diagnosed with DCM and eating one of these diets, I’d recommend the following steps: •Ask your veterinarian to test whole blood and plasma taurine levels (I recommend the University of California Davis Amino Acid Laboratory
•Report it to the FDA. This can be done either online or by telephone. The FDA may be able to help with testing costs for your dog. Reporting it will also help us to identify and solve this current problem.
•Change your dog’s diet to one made by a well-known reputable company and containing standard ingredients (e.g., chicken, beef, rice, corn, wheat). Changing to a raw or homecooked diet will not protect your dog from this issue (and may increase the risk for other nutritional deficiencies).  If your dog requires a homecooked diet or has other medical conditions that require special considerations, be sure to talk to a veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist (acvn.org) before making a dietary change.  You can contact the Cummings Nutrition Service to schedule an appointment (vetnutrition@tufts.edu)
•Start taurine supplementation. Your veterinarian or veterinary cardiologist can recommend an appropriate dose for your dog.  Be sure to use a brand of taurine with good quality control.
•Any improvements in your dog’s DCM can take 3-6 months. Your dog will need regular monitoring and may require heart medications during this time. There’s no guarantee she’ll improve but is certainly worth a try.
•Make sure your dog is getting the best combination of medications to treat his heart disease, as this can make a difference in his outcome. You can find a board-certified veterinary cardiologist near you on this website: http://find.vetspecialists.com/

Sometimes, the changes we make in pet nutrition advance our knowledge and the health of our pets.  In other cases, we can take a step in the wrong direction when the marketing outpaces the science.  Hopefully, identifying this current issue will allow us to set a new, more science-based approach to the optimal nutrition of our pets.

For more information about heart disease in dogs, please see our HeartSmart website.

 Thank you to Tufts Vet Nutrition for the wonderful, helpful article.

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