Grain-Free Diets

We hear it all too often, “Should my dog be on a grain-free diet?”

More often than not, the answer is no. Unless your dog has been diagnosed with a specific food allergy by your Veterinarian, feeding your dog a grain-free diet could potentially do more harm than good.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is following reports of dogs with a heart condition appears to be tied to certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, legumes, or potatoes as main ingredients; these ingredients are commonly found in grain-free diets.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a serious disease of the heart muscle which results in weak, ineffective pumping of blood. DCM can cause an abnormal heart rhythm, congestive heart failure, and/or sudden death.

Currently, it appears that there may be three separate groups of dogs with DCM: *

  1. Diet-associated DCM with normal taurine levels. This form of the disease has been identified in dogs of breeds not predisposed to DCM that are eating “BEG” diets – boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets.
  2. Primary DCM in predisposed breeds that is unrelated to diet. This is the traditional, genetically-related DCM in typical breeds, such as the Doberman Pinscher, Boxer, Irish Wolfhound, and Great Dane.
  3. Diet-associated DCM with taurine deficiency. This is the least common form that we see, and it can happen in both breeds predisposed to DCM and breeds that are not predisposed to DCM.

The apparent link between BEG diets and DCM may be due to ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free diets, such as lentils or chickpeas, but also may be due to other common ingredients found in BEG diets, such as exotic meats, vegetables, and fruits. In addition, not all pet food manufacturers have the same levels of nutritional expertise and quality control, and this variability could introduce potential issues with some products.

Raw and homemade diets are not safe alternatives. Some pet owners are switching from BEG diets to a raw or home-cooked diet. However, DCM has been diagnosed in dogs eating these diets too. Raw and home-cooked diets may increase your dog’s risk for many other health problems. So forgo the raw or home-cooked meals, and stick with a commercial pet food made by a well-established manufacturer that contains common ingredients, including grains.

We still have a great deal to learn about diet-associated DCM. The answer to the question, “What is causing diet-associated DCM in dogs?” is that, for the vast majority of dogs, we do not yet know what is causing the disease. Diet-associated DCM could be due to a nutritional deficiency (from insufficient amounts of nutrients or decreased bioavailability) or due to an ingredient in the food that is toxic to the heart. The FDA and many researchers are actively studying this issue so it can be solved as quickly as possible.

What can you, as a pet owner, do? If you want to know whether or not your pet’s food may be one of the diets linked to this disease, check the ingredient list to see if lentils, legumes, and/or potatoes are listed as one of the main ingredients (these are typically listed before the first vitamin or mineral ingredient).

Furthermore, have a dietary-discussion with your Veterinarian, or read more information on DCM from the FDA at

*excerpt from “It’s Not Just Grain-Free: An Update on Diet-Associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy” by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN