An Update on Grain Free Diets

Nutrition plays an important role in your pet’s overall health. Last fall, the FDA made an announcement concerning grain-free diets. Tiger Tails released a statement explaining this announcement and providing our recommendations.  We would like to provide an update on this issue.

Why the Update?

Recent discussions with a cardiologist friend from Colorado State University has caused us to reconsider our recommendations on grain-free diets. Since the FDA announcement, Colorado State has been offering low-cost cardiac screenings by doing echocardiograms on dogs who have been fed grain-free diets. Initial findings have been troubling. They have been seeing a much higher incidence of cardiomyopathy than was previously expected. Initially, cardiomyopathy was reported only in large breed dogs like Golden and Labrador Retrievers. Their findings have been showing issues in dogs of all ages and sizes. Luckily, most dogs have been asymptomatic (showing no problems or clinical signs). Some of the popular brands being fed to these dogs include, but are not limited to, FROMM, Acana, Blue Buffalo, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, and Costco Nature Domain.

Now for the Good News

The cardiomyopathy caused by grain-free diets seems to be reversible for dogs not showing any clinical signs. They are not sure about dogs with severe cardiac changes.

What is Colorado States Recommendation?

Colorado State’s recommendation is to change any dog that is on a grain-free diet to a diet that contains grain. In addition, for owners who are concerned, they also suggest placing these dogs on a cardiac supplement containing Taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that is believed to be associated with this issue. Researchers still do not understand the parthenogenesis of this disease and are not sure if and how taurine is involved. Taurine blood levels in many dogs with this issue are in the normal range. 

What is Tiger Tails Animal Hospital’s Recommendation? 

Dr. Zack is recommending you no longer feed your dog a grain-free diet. We understand the difficulty of changing a pet’s diet and that it is difficult to keep up with all the boutique and niche diets and the marketing claims made by both manufactures and retailers. It is very likely that you will see multiple recommendations differing on both pet nutrition and grain-free diets. Yet, it is important to remember that this recommendation is based on the most current research being done by veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists. 

We do not recommend any testing on your pet unless they are showing clinical signs of cardiac disease (exercise intolerance, coughing, labored breathing, weakness, lethargy and increased breathing rate). 

For those concerned individuals who want a taurine supplement, we do have one available (Vetriscience Cardio Strength).

Answers to Your Questions

We understand there is a lot of confusion around pet nutrition.  That’s why our educated team is here to answer any questions and discuss your concerns. Answers to some of the more common questions are below. 

Q & A’s 

What diet should I switch my dog to

We recommend switching to a brand name diet that contains grain. There are many good brands out there. From the grocery store: Iams or Purina One. From the pet store: Royal Canin, Purina Pro Plan. There are others out there, but these of the major diets we would feed our pets. 

My dog has a food allergy and you were recommending Costco Natures Domain Salmon-Based diet.  What are you recommending now? 

Colorado State is currently recommending Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin and Stomach. Purina also has a couple of lamb-based diets that contain grain. Additionally, prescription diet that are also available including Hills and Royal Canin hydrolyzed diets and Hills Prescription Diet Canine D/d, which is an egg-based diet.

What is causing the cardiomyopathy?

We currently do not truly understand the parthenogenesis of the cardiomyopathy associated with grain-free diets. Some believe it may be associated with taurine. Over 30 years ago, cats had a similar problem with cardiomyopathy related to diets. This issue was solved by adding additional taurine to the diet.

What happens if a do not switch to a diet with grain?

It is hard to guess which pets will have problems with a grain-free diet, but the problems associated with such a diet are serious enough for us to highly recommend all dogs be taken off grain-free diets.

What if I just supplement my pet with Taurine?

It is not fully understood that taurine is the single root cause of the problem. Due to our limited understanding at this time, we feel it is best to recommend that all dogs be taken off grain-free diets to reduce their risk of cardiomyopathy.

Should I have a cardiac workup done for my dog if they have been on a grain free diet? 

We only recommend cardiac workups for dogs showing potential clinical signs associated with cardiomyopathy. These clinical signs include lethargy, exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, weakness, weight loss, coughing, rapid breathing. The cardiomyopathy seems to be reversible in dogs without serious clinical signs. 

What all is involved in a cardiac screening?

Cardiac screenings can involve radiographs, blood work (geriatric profile plus an enzyme test called the Cardio Pet Pro BMP), and an echocardiogram (which is an ultrasound of the heart). Remember, a cardiac screening is not required unless your dog is showing clinical signs. 

How much does a cardiac screening cost? 

Radiographs: $150, plus $75 for reading by radiologist, with the total cost of radiographs being $225 

Geriatric profile: $155, which includes a CBC, urinalysis, and a blood profile containing 25 different tests. The Cardio Pet Pro BMP is a $50 add-on fee. Total blood work cost is $205.

Echocardiogram (if required) by ultrasonographer: $305

What about my costs if I’m on the wellness plan? 

If you are on the wellness plan, the cost of the radiographs and geriatric profile are covered. The only cost for the radiographs and blood testing would be the $75 radiologist fee plus a $50 add-on fee for the Cardio Pet Pro BMP. The total cost for radiographs and blood testing for clients on the wellness plan (if you have not already used your blood work and radiographs) would be $125. The echocardiogram, if required, is not included with the wellness plan and would cost $305. 

Do I have to use a cardiac supplement? 

The short answer is no. Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine does recommend using the supplement with clients who are concerned that their dog is showing clinical signs. 

I am concerned because I have heard that dogs should not eat a diet containing grain. 

This is information that was created by marketers. See information provided in the previous fall announcement

How long does it take for dogs without clinical signs to have their heart return to normal?

The cardiologist at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine stated that it would take 3-6 months for all changes to resolve. Again, this is for dogs without clinical signs. 

How are dogs treated that have clinical signs of cardiomyopathy? 

There are multiple cardiac medications these dogs can be treated with. First and foremost, they must be taken off the grain-free diet and supplemented with taurine. Medications like Vetmedin, Lasix, Enalapril, along with other drugs, may be given according to the severity of the disease. 

Are all grain-free diets causing this issue?

Initially, it was thought that grain-free diets that contained peas and legumes as a major component were the only grain-free diets involved. Work at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine shows that other grain-free diets may also be involved. That is why their recommendation (and our recommendation) is to take all dogs off any grain-free diet. 

The staff at the store that I by my pet food says a grain-free diet is not problematic. 

Currently, it is a recommendation to not feed a grain-free diet to your dog. This recommendation is based on work by certified veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists. 

I have been told that all I need to do is place my pet on a taurine supplement.

Again, the recommendation is to take all pets off a grain-free diet. The pathogenesis, or what causes this disease, is not fully understood. Taurine supplementation is something extra that a pet parent may provide to their pet, but this is in addition to taking your pet off a grain-free diet.

Are all cardiac diseases is associated with grain-free diets? 

No.  

Are all cardiomyopathies caused by grain-free diets? 

No 

What does Dr. Zack feed his dog? 

Sloopy, one of Dr. Zack’s Chocolate Labrador Retrievers, has inflammatory bowel disease due to a food allergy to chicken. Because of this, he feeds both dogs Royal Canin hydrolyzed diet.  It is easier for both dogs to keep the same diet.  

What if my dog is allergic to grain? 

Most food allergies are not related to grain but are related to the meat protein. Protein is more likely to cause a food allergy due to its large size and antigenicity. If you feel your dog is allergic to corn, for instance, there are multiple grain diets that do not contain corn. 

My dog has a gluten allergy. 

Most food allergies are related to a meat protein, and less commonly a grain. How was your dog diagnosed with a gluten allergy? If you feel your dog might be gluten-intolerant, there are diets out there that contain gluten-free grains.  

I feed my dog a raw diet that does not contain grain. Wolves eat raw food so should our dog companions. 

We at Tiger Tails do not recommend raw diets, especially if you have children or anyone who is potentially immunosuppressed. Again, all dogs should be taken off grain-free diets. If you want to prepare a home cooked diet for your pet, we recommend you come talk with your veterinarian to ensure that you are providing a complete and balanced meal.