The Dangers of Grain Free Diets

Feb 18, 2020Blog Posting

Feeding fad diets

In recent years, there has been a marketing push for boutique-type diets. There are diets like: grain-free, limited ingredient, exotic proteins, legume-based foods (peas, lentils), etc. Veterinarians refer to these as BEG diets (boutique, exotic protein, grain-free). On one hand specialized diets can often help treat specific conditions. However, they can be unnecessary for most pets. Besides, there is concern that with some boutique-type diets there is an increase in dogs developing heart disease.

Boutique, exotic, grain free diets

The Association of American Feed Control Officials is responsible for setting standards for the presence of major and minor nutrients in food to make the food complete. This is an analysis of numbers, but does not take into account how certain ingredients may interact with one another. Pets may or may not absorb certain ingredients well. Also certain foods may interact with other ingredients in the food reducing their absorption. This is the complicated part. Some dogs fed BEG diets in particular Golden Retrievers, seem to have an alteration in taurine levels. Taurine is critical for heart function. For dogs whose heart changes are reversible, the vast majority respond well to diet change and taurine supplementation. However, some dogs’ disease is identified too late to save them. We have a story of a dog we treated who almost met that dreadful fate.

Grace’s Story

Meet Grace, a sweet and spunky Labrador mix
Now Meet Grace, a sweet and spunky Labrador mix. Grace’s loving owners rescued her as a puppy. But suddenly in December they didn’t know if Grace would make it to see the new year.

She had recently been to see her regular veterinarian in a small town for coughing, no appetite, and no energy. Upon examining Grace, her regular veterinarian discovered she had an abnormal heart rhythm. Her owners sought a second opinion in an adjacent town, two hours from Grand Junction. At this appointment, the arrhythmia was still present, and her heart rate was over 150 beats per minute (normally 100-120). This can be a dangerous condition because when a heart begins to beat faster and doesn’t follow a rhythmic pattern, it cannot effectively pump blood. Fortunately the veterinarian recognized the severity of the problem and referred Grace to Grand Junction for a complete cardiac work-up. That’s how we met.

Heartbeat Racing Fast

Grace was rushed to Amigo Animal Clinic. On her examination, Grace was extremely tired. She didn’t even have enough energy to raise her head. Grace’s heart rate had climbed to greater than 200 beats per minute, almost too fast to count. An electrocardiogram (ECG) showed her heart was beating way too fast and had an abnormal rhythm. Additionally, x-rays showed her heart was severely enlarged and that blood was backing up into the lungs. Furthermore, an ultrasound of her heart showed the chambers of the heart were too large and the muscles of the heart were too thin. Her heart was failing her. Something had caused severe damage to her heart and without appropriate treatment she would die at just 2 years of age.

Grace’s enlarged heart and fluid filled lungs A normal heart and lungs
x-ray image showing enlarged heart and fluid filled lungs x-ray image showingA normal heart and lungs of a dog

Diagnosis

We forwarded our findings to a heart specialist who confirmed our diagnosis. Grace had a condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy with atrial fibrillation. Basically, the chambers of her heart were too large, and the heart muscles were too weak to pump blood effectively to the body. This condition also causes the electrical activity of the heart to go haywire so that it cannot effectively contract.

Immediate Lifesaving Medical Care

We began immediate lifesaving medical care. One drug prescribed slowed her heart rate down and help it contract more efficiently. Additionally, another drug pulled fluid off her lungs so she could breathe. Then we placed Grace in an oxygen tent which helped her to oxygenate and rest easier.

Why Heart Failure at Such a Young Age?

We needed to figure out why her heart was failing at such a young age. We had to dig deeper into her history. Grace had been born healthy but several months ago she started coughing. Coughing is not unusual in dogs. And often there is a simple cause. Grace had been given two courses of antibiotics thinking the cause of the cough was a bacterial infection. She seemed to improve, but the cough returned after each course.

The owners then mentioned that she had recently quit eating, so they were trying to entice her with a new canned food. This led to the key question, “What had Grace been eating over the last several months?” The reply was A GRAIN FREE DIET. That solved our puzzle. Several months ago, the Veterinary community and the Federal Drug Administration recognized there could be a link between Grain Free Diets and Dilated Cardiomyopathy in dogs. You can find the full June 27, 2019 FDA update here.

Grace’s Long Road to Recovery

Grace was transferred to the overnight emergency clinic for constant infusion of her intravenous medication and monitoring. She returned to Amigo Animal Clinic the next morning. She had stabilized and was able to go home on oral medications (six of them), and a non-grain free over-the-counter dog food. Grace has since been rechecked twice and is rapidly returning to the Labrador puppy she should be. One of her owner’s said, “Grace has been sick for a long time, we just didn’t know.” Grace is a different dog. She has energy and life; she wags her tail and is excited to see everyone. But Grace’s journey is not over. Her life will be full of medication and activity restricted for months. It may take almost a year for her heart to regain normal function.

Why Did Grace’s Owners Put Grace On a Grain-Free Diet?

Grace’s owners put her on a grain-free diet because a friend had mentioned that grains in dog food cause cancer. Grace’s predecessor had died from cancer and her owners did not wish to re-live the same experience. So, they thought that they were doing best by Grace. However, there is no conclusive research available indicating a link between grains and cancer in dogs.

Grace is now doing much better and we look forward to tracking Grace’s progress and have only the highest hopes for a full recovery.

Conclusion

It is vital that pets get all the nutrition they need to stay healthy. Accordingly, BEG diets should only be utilized for specific conditions that are diagnosed by your veterinarian. Certainly, not every dog fed a BEG diet has developed heart failure, or even heart disease. The issue is complex and therefore, as the FDA reports; more research is needed to determine all of the factors contributing to diet-related cardiomyopathy. So, PLEASE, before choosing a BEG diet for your pet, consult your veterinarian first!

Sincerely,

Gracie and Dr. Bridge

Gracie (dog) and Dr. Bridge (vet)

  • Freeman LM, Stern JA, Fries R, Adin DB and Rush, JE. Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know? JAM Vet Med Assoc – 2018;253: 1390-1394.

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