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Grain-Free Grief | FDA investigating link between grain-free food and heart failure in dogs

The FDA is investigating a possible link between grain-free food and heart failure in dogs.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Joey was the lovable pup of 13 ON YOUR SIDE's Kirk Montgomery. They were together for nearly 12 years before he died on Jan. 12, 2020.

"He just profoundly changed my life," Kirk said of his Cocker Spaniel mix. "People would always say 'it was so gracious of you to rescue Joey' and I'd say no, 'Joey rescued me.'" 

Kirk said Joey was very charismatic, almost mischievous, and Kirk came to call him "my little scamp." 

But Joey always had allergies, which led Kirk to feed him a grain-free diet, never dreaming he was doing Joey any harm. 

"The first thing [veterinarians] asked me was 'what are you feeding him?' And I said 'well I've been feeding him this grain-free.'"

Joey had heart failure, and he wasn't alone.

Credit: Kirk Montgomery

RELATED: 'He profoundly changed my life:' Kirk Montgomery says goodbye to beloved dog Joey

According to the FDA, hundreds of dogs have gotten the same diagnosis, some even died because they were eating grain free dog food.

"We know that there's a link between grain-free food and specifically foods that have lentils and peas and maybe sweet potatoes in them," said Ryan Carpenter, a veterinarian for Family Friends Veterinary Hospital. "So those foods are causing dilated cardiomyopathy."

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a genetic condition in dogs, typically seen in large or giant breeds like Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, the Irish Wolfhound and Cocker Spaniels. It's disease of the cardiac muscle that results in decreased ability of the heart to generate enough pressure through the vascular system. 

"Over the last year, there's been more knowledge about it," Carpenter continued. "So, we're looking for pets that may be on a grain-free diet, screening them and paying close attention to what's going on with them."

In July 2018, the FDA opened an investigation into the potential link between grain-free food and heart failure in dogs. The FDA found that grain-free foods blocked the absorption of taurine, a significant amino acid needed for a dogs heart to function.

"It's a micronurtrient that allows the heart to pump normally," Carpenter explained. "And it's not something that we think of on a daily basis -- about taking taurine -- but it's there in micro amounts that causes a lot of help."

In addition to finding the taurine link, the FDA also discovered certain breeds of dogs are affected more.

Labrador retrievers, mixed breeds and Golden Retrievers top the list.

Credit: FDA

Halo is a Golden Retriever. Jan brought her to Family Friends Veterinary Hospital because she noticed Halo was lethargic and had recently learned about the health issues associated with grain-free food.

"We decided to check her taurine level and it was low -- so we sent her to a cardiologist detected some cardiac changes so we started her on a taurine supplement," Jan said. "Now [Halo's] taurine levels are normal, her heart levels are normal -- so she's good to go."

Carpenter says Halo will be on taurine supplements for the rest of her life, but she should be able to live a normal life.

For Jan, spreading the word about the link between grain-free foods and heart failure has become her mission, "I'm very passionate about it because it is treatable and I would hate to think about her just dropping dead which is what some of them have done."

But for some like Joey, the diagnosis comes too late.

The FDA continues to investigate the link between grain-free dog food and heart failure. They've learned that the age of the dog doesn't matter. Puppies as young as six months to 15-year-old dogs have been affected.

Researchers are asking anyone who has fed their dog a grain-free diet to participate in their study. The details on how to submit your case report can be found at “How to Report a Pet Food Complaint."

Here is a list of the dog food brands associated with the FDA investigation:

  • Acana
  • Zignature
  • Taste of the Wild
  • 4Health
  • Earthborn Holistic
  • Blue Buffalo
  • Nature's Domain
  • Fromm
  • Merrick
  • California Natural
  • Natural Balance
  • Orijen
  • Nature's Variety
  • NutriSource
  • Nutro
  • Rachael Ray Nutrish

These are the five dog food brands recommended safe by the Association of the American Feed Control Officials:

  • Purina (most formulas)
  • Hills (Science Diet
  • Royal Canin
  • Eukanuba
  • Iams

If you would like to learn more about grain free diets and taurine deficiency you can join the Taurine-Deficient (Nutritional) Dilated Cardiomyopathy Facebook group. It's administered by a veterinarian.


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