Okaw Veterinary Clinic

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Tuscola, IL 61953

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Grain-Free Diets can Kill


various types of foodI know this title is harsh - but I want to grab your attention and have you keep reading. Grain-free diets have become very popular over the last 10 years. While grain can aggravate some allergies and intestinal diseases, the problem is that all foods are not created equally. The  growth of boutique, small size who may not run post production nutritional ingredient testing and digestibility levels leave an impression of quality that may not be true. Veterinary cardiac specialists are finding dogs with life threatening heart disease who are low in taurine, an essential amino acid for heart health. Many of these dogs are being fed grain free diets which are aggravating taurine levels. Low levels of taurine often lead to cardiomyopathy - a fatal heart condition in dogs and cats.

Breeds such as the Doberman Pincer, Boxer, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel have had genetic heart disease for many years. Now the Golden Retriever is adding to this breed specific list. Golden Retrievers are a recent addition and many are eating the grain-free diet. A nutritionist researcher has found that the grain-free diets high in legumes is an aggravator. 

A statistical study of Golden Retrievers examined at the University of California Davis College of Veterinary Medicine was run this year. These dogs had heart disease, and many of them were on a grain-free diet. The diets he found to be associated with the problem were the grain-free diets high in legumes (lentil, pea and chick pea for example). It is not documented if there is something particular about the legumes interfering with the ability of the dog to create taurine, but there is an association. Many new companies have come on the market touting the quality of their food. Food companies are not required to test after the production of the diet for the levels of nutrients in the diet. The process of making the food, will decrease the levels of some amino acids like taurine so it is important to purchase foods from the larger corporations who lead nutritional research. Purina, Iams, Mars, and Hills run the post production testing that is not required by law. They have the scientists and nutritionists who follow the health studies in animals. Please feed diets by these larger makers and not from smaller companies. I have also seen some nutritional deficiencies with homemade diets, and also from small companies.

The good news - taurine can be supplemented and the damage can be reversed if caught early. Supplementing taurine must be done carefully. A blood level check is advised if your pet, dog or cat has been on a homemade, vegetarian or grain-free diet. Blood testing requires bringing your pet in for a sample to be drawn and sent to the lab at U of California Davis. Urine can also be tested, but check with your veterinarian on the details of sample collection.

I have used and prescribed diets that are grain-free for some of my patients. I am careful to stick with the companies who do the post production testing which helps with quality. Despite that, there are still some animals who are more sensitive to protein digestion and taurine production. I have now learned how some diets can interfere with this important amino acid, and will be more careful in what I advise. Nutrition is important, and must be supported with good science not just good opinion. Always review the brand, have your pet food label available to review with your veterinarian at your regular exams.

More information about Grain-free diets and health problems can be found here:

Taurine Deficiency Induced Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers

Researchers Getting Closer to Understanding Dietary Taurine and Heart Disease in Dogs

The Latest on Grain-free Diets!

Josh Stern Cardiac Genetic Laboratory