Links between your Lab’s food and heart problems?

By Mary Schwager

Lynette Dimbero began to suspect something just wasn’t right with her family’s beloved dog, Bailey.

This spring, as the temperature in Austin, Texas, started to heat up, the black Lab began breathing heavier than usual, which seemed plausible. But Dimbero decided to watch her more closely. “You think: She is a dog; that’s what they do,” Dimbero said.

“Bailey” was recently hospitalized with heart failure. Photo credit: Lynette Dimbero

Then Bailey didn’t seem very interested in going outside, and she just started shutting down. “Heavy panting,” Dimbero said. “And then she quit eating as much, and then all together.”

Dimbero’s husband raced Bailey to the animal hospital.

“The first question the vet asked him was, ‘What kind of food was she eating?’” Dimbero said.

He told the doctor Bailey was on a grain-free diet and didn’t think much more about it.

After many medical tests, the Dimberos got some tragic news: Bailey was in heart failure. Her official diagnosis: advanced dilated cardiomyopathy. Dimbero said their vet told them, “It was probably caused by grain-free food.”

The family was shocked to hear the premium dog food they fed her could have played a role. “This has been devastating to us. Bailey is one of our girls. We look at our pets as one of our kids,” Dimbero said.

Could the food your dog eats really cause heart problems? That’s something the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now officially investigating.

FDA Investigation

In the federal agency’s latest update on the investigation, the FDA said it received nearly 300 reports of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs over a four-year period.

Researchers saw some puzzling patterns: Some of the animals lived in the same home, and cases of DCM were occurring in breeds that didn’t typically have heart disease.

The FDA said: “While there are dog breeds (typically large and giant breeds, plus Cocker Spaniels) that are known to have a genetic predisposition to dilated cardiomyopathy, the reports to the FDA continue to span a wide range of breeds, many that do not have a known genetic predisposition.”

And scientists discovered diet was also a common denominator in more than a majority of the cases. The feds findings so far say:

“In cases in which dogs ate a single primary diet (i.e., didn’t eat multiple food products, excluding treats), 90 percent reported feeding a grain-free food. Approximately 10 percent reported feeding a food containing grains and some of these diets were vegan or vegetarian.

A large proportion of the reported diets in DCM cases – both grain-free and grain-containing – contained peas and/or lentils in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.) as a main ingredient (listed within the first 10 ingredients, before vitamins and minerals). The products included commercially available kibble, canned and raw foods, as well as home-cooked diets.”

FDA researchers are still scouring through reports the agency has received from veterinarians and pet owners, including extensive diet histories, medical records, blood samples, and echocardiogram results.

As the investigation continues with no conclusive answers yet, many pet owners are now left wondering if what they’re feeding their dog could cause literal heart-breaking problems in the future.

The Popularity of Boutique, Exotic, and Grain-Free Dog Foods

If you browse the aisles of many pet supply stores these days, a lot of the dog food is not the same kind of stuff you saw on shelves five years ago.

Now you see racks of kibble and cans of boutique, exotic, and grain-free diets; in the industry, it’s known as “BEG.”

How did this fancy food become so popular?

“The term ‘grain-free’ capitalized on a couple of bigger trends,” said veterinarian Lori Teller, who is on the American Veterinary Medical Association board of directors. “First, people were becoming more conscious of things they were eating themselves, such as gluten, carbohydrates, and other diet trends. Second, there were some studies released regarding feline diets that showed that a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet is better for their metabolism.”

Problem is, what might be beneficial for people or cats isn’t necessarily good for dogs. “Unfortunately, things that can get trendy in the bigger world, such as grain-free diets, don’t always accurately reflect what has been scientifically proven,” Teller said.

A recent Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association paper points out that, “Pet food marketing has outpaced the science, and owners are not always making healthy, science-based decisions even though they want to do the best for their pets.”

What’s Known So Far?

Researchers are zeroing in on taurine, an amino sulfonic acid that’s a building block of protein. If a dog isn’t getting enough, it could lead to heart disease, like DCM, congestive heart failure, blindness, and nervous system abnormalities.

“The underlying factor seems to be a deficiency in taurine,” Teller said. “Taurine comes from animal muscle tissue, such as beef or chicken, though different animal protein sources have different levels of taurine. For example, rabbit provides lesser amounts of taurine compared to other animal-based protein sources. Furthermore, BEG diets frequently replace the grains with legumes, which can deplete the levels of taurine in a diet. Some of these diets may also have higher fiber content that can further interfere with taurine absorption.”

Is Your Dog’s Diet Putting Him at Risk?

It’s important to note that not all cases of heart disease are a result of diet.

“Genetics will certainly play a role, such as valvular disease in Cavalier King Charles spaniels or boxer cardiomyopathy,” Teller said. “Evaluating the underlying cause of the heart disease will be part of the diagnostic workup. But we do know that nutrition plays a role in heart disease, so we can certainly encourage owners to feed a diet that won’t exacerbate any genetic predispositions to cardiac disease.”

What’s also baffling is one dog can eat a certain type of food and be just fine, but another dog may have health issues.

Teller said how a dog’s body metabolizes taurine is complex.

“DCM seems to be more prevalent in larger breed dogs, so that potentially could be a factor. Also, we don’t currently fully understand the bioavailability of taurine, so other factors in the diet, the environment, or metabolism could play a role. Another recent area of study is the gut microbiome, so it’s possible that we may discover that plays a role as well,” she said.

The Pet Food Institute, the trade association representing 98 percent of all U.S. pet food and treat makers, said it’s working closely with the FDA on this issue, and grain-free dog foods as a whole are not under investigation by the feds.

The association pointed to its frequently asked questions section on its website about this issue.

One FAQ says: “Is grain-free food safe for my pet?”

The Institute’s response:

“Millions of dogs are thriving on grain-free dog food every day. In comparison, FDA has received to date a relatively small number of valid reports indicating that certain grain-free diets may possibly have played a role in DCM. FDA’s investigation focuses on certain ingredients that figure more prominently in some pet food products labeled as grain-free. FDA is focusing on certain ingredients, including legumes like peas or lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes, in its investigation, but has not identified any established link between certain ingredients and incidents of DCM.

The exact cause of these cases of DCM is still unknown and may be the result of many factors. If you have a question about your dog’s food, we recommend that you contact the manufacturer to learn more.”

What Should You Feed Your Dog?

Experts all agree you should ask your veterinarian, and make sure your dog is eating a diet that is complete and balanced for his age.

“Discuss these things with your veterinarian to determine the right food for your dog, and discuss nutrition during annual visits to determine if diet change is warranted,” Teller said. “If necessary, they can have bloodwork checked and a cardiac evaluation, and possibly consult with a veterinary nutritionist or cardiologist for further information. Different dogs have different nutritional needs, based on lifestyle, genetics, and life-stage.”

Vets can also run a blood test to measure a dog’s taurine levels.

The Pet Food Institute offers a nose to tail guide listing the nutrients a dog needs throughout his life.

Dimbero’s Warning for Dog Owners

Dimbero said Bailey’s symptoms came on quickly. Her dog was at a routine vet appointment the month before the problems started and she seemed fine.

Now the Lab has permanent heart damage and will be on medication for the rest of her life.

Dimbero warns dog owners to take diet seriously. “Do not take this lightly,” she said. “Research, read articles, and when in doubt talk to professionals. Always trust your instinct when you feel something isn’t quite right.”

The FDA said it will continue to provide updates on its investigation. In the meantime, if your dog was diagnosed with DCM and your vet believes it could be connected to diet, the agency wants to hear from you.

Mary Schwager, aka WatchdogMary is a TV and print journalist now watchdogging for animals. Honored to have won 16 Emmy, 8 Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards for investigative reporting and writing. She loves tips, so send your story ideas to

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