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Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Nutrition

Written by on July 29, 2019

Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, is a type of canine heart disease that causes enlargement and weakening of the heart, decreasing its ability to pump blood. If untreated, congestive heart failure may be the result. Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to the disease, including some large and giant breeds as well as those with slower metabolic rates. Symptoms of DCM can include lethargy, persistent coughing, collapsing, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. 

DCM Cases

The FDA has noticed an increase in DCM cases, particularly among breeds that are not considered predisposed, which has led to investigation of a potential connection to diet. While the investigation was announced in July of 2018, cases being analyzed range from January 2014 through April 2019. Within this time frame, 515 canine DCM cases were reported to the FDA. According to Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, Ph.D., DACVN, “The apparent link between BEG diets and DCM may be due to ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free diets, such as lentils or chickpeas,” but this link has not been proven. Out of the 515 reported cases, 90% of dogs were eating a grain free food, 93% of foods contained lentils and/or peas, and 42% of foods included potatoes or sweet potatoes. According to the FDA, the vast majority of the dogs were eating dry food, making up 452 out of the 515 cases. 

Dietary Link to DCM

This potential dietary link to DCM is thought to have something to do with the production, utilization, or bacterial degradation of taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that is found in tissue and circulating in the bloodstream rather than incorporated into proteins in the body. It is not considered a dietary requirement for dogs because they produce it themselves using the amino acids methionine and cysteine. These and other essential amino acids are critical components of the diet that can be found in high quality animal proteins. Plant proteins, including legumes, potatoes, grains, and corn, and highly processed meats are harder for dogs to digest, therefore they do not gain as many nutrients from them. This means that the most biologically appropriate, and easiest to digest, food for dogs is a minimally processed diet with very high meat content and little to no filler, such as a balanced raw diet. Dietary risk factors for DCM are thought to include low protein diets, poor quality protein sources, high dietary fiber such as rice bran and beet pulp, and plant based protein sources. According to the FDA, a large number of the cases reported involved foods with a significant amount of “peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), and/or potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.) as main ingredients (listed within the first 10 ingredients in the ingredient list, before vitamins and minerals).” 


Based on this, a diet high in quality meats and low in starchy fillers is the best way to prevent DCM, as well as many other diseases and issues that are rooted in poor nutrition. Unfortunately, not all veterinarians are educated in nutrition and thus do not always recommend this type of food. In the conventional veterinary world, food is generally only addressed if there is a GI issue relating directly to the diet. According to integrative wellness veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker, much of the nutritional education that vets do get is from the big name pet food producers. Even veterinary nutritionists frequently have their tuition paid for by these big manufacturers and are only educated in processed diets for dogs. These large companies are also the ones that pay for most studies in the dog food industry, but do not often conduct long term nutrition based studies on the health of animals. Becker states that the biggest health issues pets face today are “lifestyle-induced degenerative diseases often rooted in nutritional mismanagement.” Often, holistic vets have more knowledge about pet nutrition and are likely to look at the diet to see what could be changed before jumping to medication or other more conventional routes. 

Dilated cardiomyopathy in relation to diet has been a hot topic lately, with a lot of misinformation and panic surrounding it. As it stands, nothing has been proven or disproven, and the FDA does not currently recommend switching your pet to a grain inclusive food. If you are concerned about your pet’s diet and/or DCM, consult a licensed veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist. 


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