Small Animal Services

Grain-free and Boutique Dog and Cat Food: A Warning

When it comes to pet food, clever Internet advertisers have made it difficult to discern fact from fiction.

Some pet food companies have tried to carve out a niche market by convincing people that grain causes everything from allergies to cancer in dogs. The truth is that grain allergy in dogs is extremely rare. If a dog has a food allergy, the dog is usually allergic to a protein in the food. Grains have not been proven to cause other health problems in dogs.

On July 12, 2018 the US Food and Drug Administration issued an alert to veterinarians and pet owners. The alert was based on numerous reports from veterinary cardiologists who found dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dog breeds that do not commonly develop the disease. The common factor: all the dogs were eating diets that were boutique (made by a small manufacturer), using exotic ingredients or were grain-free (BEG).  

DCM is a heart muscle disease that reduces heart pumping function and increases heart size. The changes in the heart can lead to congestive heart failure.  This in turn can produce a buildup of fluid in the lungs or abdomen associated with shortness of breath, weakness, coughing, and sometimes sudden death. 

In addition to the FDA’s investigation, research is being conducted at the University of California-Davis and Tufts University to determine the link between the foods and the heart disease. Dr. Josh Stern, a veterinary cardiologist and geneticist at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is studying the link between DCM and taurine deficiency in golden retrievers eating grain-free diets. 

Taurine is an amino acid that dogs can make from other building blocks in their food and low taurine levels have been linked to DCM.  If low taurine levels had been found in all the dogs with non-inherited DCM, the issue wouldn’t be very complicated. But many of the dogs with DCM have had normal taurine levels. 

Dr. Lisa Freeman is a veterinary nutritionist and researcher at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. She and four other researchers published an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in December 2018 outlining what is currently known regarding diet-associated DCM in dogs. 

The researchers said, “…the apparent link between BEG diets and DCM may be due to the grain-free nature of these diets (i.e., use of ingredients such as lentils, chickpeas, or potatoes to replace grains), other common ingredients in BEG diets (e.g., exotic meats, flaxseed, fruits, or probiotics), possible nutritional imbalances, or inadvertent inclusion of toxic dietary components. Or, the apparent association may be spurious.” ¹ 

On February 19, 2019, the FDA posted an update on its website detailing its continuing investigations into the problem. They added information on reports of cats eating BEG diets developing DCM and are investigating a possible connection in that species as well.

As always, if you have specific concerns about your dog’s or cat’s diet, it is best to discuss them with your veterinarian.

  1. “Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?”, Freeman, Stern, Fries, Adin, and Rush, JAVMA December 1, 2018, vol 253, no 11.


Cariann Turbeville, DVM
Clinical Assistant Professor
Washington State University

Washington State University