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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lori Drourr, DVM

Grain Free Diets (GFD) - NOT what the cardiologist ordered: Link Between Nutrition & Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs

Updated: Jun 25

Grain Free Diet Ingredient List
Golden Retriever eating dog food
Do you know what's in your Dog's Diet?

Its not all about the lack of grain:

Legumes such as peas, lentils, chickpeas and to a lesser extent sweet potatoes in diets have been linked to diet associated DCM

What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?  What signs to look for in my furry companion?

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) occurs when the heart muscle loses its ability to contract normally.  This weak heart muscle and loss of normal function leads to the heart increasing in size and decreasing in the hearts’ pumping ability.  Over time, the heart valves are pulled away from each other and can no longer close all the way.  These leaky valves  - where blood moves backward in the heart instead of forward to the rest of the body – make sounds (a heart murmur) your veterinarian may hear.  This inability to pump blood forward ultimately leads to heart failure where fluid accumulates, like a rain shower, in the lungs.


Early Stage – most animals have no symptoms in the early stage of disease

Later Stage Clinical Signs may include:

  • Coughing

  • Exercise intolerance or changes in desired activity level

  • Collapse

  • Increased breathing rate or effort at rest



  • Genetic – inherited: mostly large breed dogs – Dobermans, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, Boxers – some smaller dogs – Cocker Spaniels) – cats commonly seen with genetic DCM – Burmese, Abyssinian, Siamese

  • Non-genetic Causes – large breed AND small breeds  

    • Nutritional – Think Grain Free Diets/BEG Diets (keep reading😊…)

      • Taurine Deficiency

      • L-Carnitine Deficiency

      • Other nutritional micronutrient deficiencies

    • Infectious

    • Inflammatory

How Diet Causes DCM...What to Look for in a Pet Diet?

A new term thrown around in the realm of pet nutrition is “BEG”, an acronym that references boutique companies (I think smaller companies, typically do not have many or any veterinary nutritionists on their team, quality control of each batch may not be tested, often expensive diets) exotic ingredients, and grain-free diets (can have legumes*, such as lentils, peas, chickpeas as a substitute for the grains). These diets often lead to micronutrient deficiencies. It is the micronutrients and how they interact nutritionally that can be a culprit of diet associated cardiomyopathy.

*We are also now seeing diet associated DCM in diets that have grains but also have more of the legumes.

Taurine is the most common micronutrient referred to when speaking about nutritional deficiency. Did you know some dog breeds are more likely to have a Taurine deficiency (Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, for example)?  Did you know that cats cannot make Taurine and require it in their diet? It is important to know that taurine levels can be (and often are) normal with DCM, so it is important to look at all micronutrients that could be lacking in a pet’s diet.  Where Taurine is measurable on a blood sample, we cannot measure for other nutrients easily (ex. Carnitine).

What should I feed my pet?

It can be difficult to navigate the pet food industry and choose a diet that is right for your pet. Taking a holistic approach to digesting information is critical, which entails acknowledging information from your veterinarian and trusted veterinary institutions. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) provides recommendations curated by over eighty veterinary organizations around the world, cementing them as a diverse source of information. What to know about the pet food industry is that it's not as highly regulated as you would hope for your furry family member. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) help set guidelines and regulate pet food respectively. Know that AAFCO approved food doesn't mean these foods won't cause nutritionally induced DCM. AAFCO establishes guidelines for ingredient definitions, product labels, feed trial and lab analysis of nutrients that go into pet food. Think minimum standards. AAFCO does not directly test, approve, or certify that the standards are met by the pet food company. Check out how your pet food stacks up with the WSAVA guidelines.

Best Recommendation to Avoid a Potential Recipe for Disaster:

  • Avoid Grain Free Diets (if allergies dictate, ask your veterinarian for a brand they trust)

  • Avoid Diets Containing Legumes Chickpeas, lentils, beans, peas in the top 10 ingredients and/or a primary ingredient of sweet potatoes

  • Avoid Vegan/Vegetarian Diets

  • DO FEED A WELL-BALANCED DIET (THINK tried and true veterinary nutritionist-based diets)




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