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DCM And Your Dog’s Food: What You Need to Know

Wednesday, July 03, 2019
By Cindy Quach


You may have seen the recent headlines about an FDA report potentially linking grain-free diets to heart disease in dogs. Understandably, you may be concerned about your pet’s diet and how it might impact their health.

At Nom Nom, we've been closely monitoring this issue and wanted to provide our interpretation of the information thus far. We discussed the situation with Dr. Justin Shmalberg, one of our Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists, who has also provided an in-depth summary of current knowledge on his website. Again, there has been no proven association between diet and DCM—but if you are concerned about the potential link, we have provided several recommendations from Dr. Shmalberg below. For more of Dr. Shmalberg’s thoughts on DCM and this study, you can check out this article published on his website.    

What is DCM and what causes it?

DCM is a condition characterized by poor contraction of the heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure. Dogs may show no signs, nonspecific signs (poor appetite or energy level), or in advanced stages, they may experience coughing due to fluid in the lungs or enlargement of the heart, or severe fatigue or collapse. Genetic predisposition is thought to be the cause in most cases of DCM, especially since these dogs tend to be of similar breeds (Dobermans, Boxers, Great Danes). However, deficiency of taurine (a nonessential amino acid) is known to cause a potentially reversible form of DCM and was seen much more commonly before many pet foods were supplemented with taurine. The recent cases of reported DCM were often in breeds not known to have a genetic predisposition and which were commonly fed grain-free diets. There is no conclusive link in the current cases to taurine deficiency, although some dogs have been shown to have low taurine levels and have shown improvement with both diet change and taurine supplements.  

What does the FDA report mean?

Currently there is no proven association between any diet and the heart disease in question, and the number of reported cases is low compared to the number of dogs fed the reported diets. The FDA is testing reported foods but has at this point only released limited information on nutritional testing suggesting the diets meet established requirements. If an association is proven, there are likely many other factors at play beyond diet —perhaps a “perfect storm” of genetic predisposition, differences in gut microbiota, poor digestibility of certain ingredients, and potentially problematic pet food formulation or processing. It will likely take years for the investigation to be complete.

One interesting fact from the study is that kibble was the most common food type associated with DCM. This could be due to the popularity of kibble, but there are several common factors in many of the kibble diets reported by owners, including what appears to be significant amounts of legumes like peas and chickpeas. Again, there has been no proven association between diet and DCM—but if you are concerned about the potential link, we have provided several recommendations from Dr. Shmalberg below.

It is also important to note that fresh pet foods have not been implicated in the possible correlation. Ingredients in fresh pet food are often highly digestible due to their high-quality meats, the absence of poor-quality meat meal ingredients, and the absence of large amounts of plant proteins or indigestible fiber. While some fresh foods contain potatoes and peas, they are present in lower quantities than in many other diets, especially extruded kibble, and provide energy along with many phytonutrients and benefits. Potatoes and sweet potatoes have been used for a long time with no previous reported association. There’s a big difference between a diet with 5% peas and one with over 30% peas! 

5 things to consider amidst the information provided by the FDA on DCM and diets:

  1. Consider feeding a higher protein diet. A diet with more than 75 grams of protein per 1000 calories is a good place to start. This ensures adequate protein for the heart and all other muscles and provides taurine precursors.
  2. Consider a diet with additive taurine. While we don’t yet know that taurine is an effective preventative or treatment factor in DCM cases, it has a high margin of safety. 
  3. Avoid diets which appear to rely heavily on legumes. This is typically determined by looking at a diet’s first few ingredients. If legumes appear first or second, or if there are many different legumes, it may be best to avoid until more information is available or unless a veterinarian has helped you to evaluate its suitability for your pet. There’s no reason to avoid legumes or potatoes entirely, but they should be complementary to other protein sources and not the primary source of protein in the diet.
  4. Consider varying the diet. Nutritional variety helps overcome any issues associated with a specific formulation. 
  5. Talk to pet food companies about their testing and formulation process. Do they work with nutritionists to formulate and test the final product? Are they able to provide a detailed nutritional profile for their foods? 

At NomNomNow, we hope you’ll consider fresh food for your pet. We use high quality meats and fresh product to prepare meals. We pre-portion each of your pet’s meals and have a dedicated nutrition and research team to advance the science of fresh food. All meals are carefully formulated to be complete and balanced, are routinely tested, and contain supplemental taurine. Peas and potatoes are never used as the source of protein but rather as whole food complements in our balanced diets, suitable for all life stages.

To learn more about NomNomNow and get 20% off your trial, create a meal plan for your pet here.

For more of Dr. Shmalberg’s thoughts on DCM and this study, you can check out this article published on his website.

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