Mega Dog and Bold Raw: Review on new DCM research related to grain-free diets in dogs
The FDA is currently investigating the relationship of DCM and grain-free diets. With grain-free diets being a fairly popular choice, this has caused much confusion in the pet world and pet parents are concerned, which is understandable. The FDA has published this information with very little scientific data to back it up, instead throwing all these kibble companies “under the bus”, when these companies are all AAFCO certified. Many of these studies admit to having a very small number of dogs to work with, most not even having 30 subjects, this limits the credibility of their findings and further research needs to be done.
These ideas are often more fear based than fact based, but should we be concerned about this?
What is DCM, and why is taurine so important?
Dilated cardiomyopathy, DCM, is a cardiac disease where the hearts ability to pump around the body is decreased typically due to the enlargement and weakening of the heart chambers. This decreased ability to pump blood can be due to many factors including mineral imbalances, too much fat around the heart muscles, genetic precursors, etc. In the research done recently on diet-associated DCM, they’re pursuing a potential link between taurine deficiency in dogs and DCM.
This is not a new disease that has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, DCM has existed for a very long time, dogs and cats have been getting DCM for years and has been documented since the 1980s. They believe taurine deficiencies are causing DCM because taurine is an abundant amino acid within the heart muscles and believed to be involved in many processes like the contraction of the muscles.
It has also shown to be more predominant in some breeds such as cocker spaniels and golden retrievers, and large and giant breeds such as wolfhounds, great Danes, and Newfoundlanders. As a result, researchers feel there is a genetic component to it, and cannot purely focus on the diet of the patient.
Cats have a very reduced or no ability at all to synthesize taurine from other sulphur containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine due to low enzyme activity and therefore it is an essential amino acid for the species. In the past, adjustments have been made to cat food formulas in order to accommodate for their need of taurine. On the other hand, with dogs, taurine deficiencies were quite uncommon until recently because taurine is not an essential amino acid for them because they can synthesize taurine from cysteine and methionine. Since there are many different compounds and enzymes involved in the processes of synthesizing, metabolizing, storing, and utilizing taurine it is going to take a lot more digging and further research to understand what is really causing the taurine deficiency. Taurine absorption can be impacted in many ways such as loss through cooking and processing, not having the components from ingredients to synthesize it, or interactions of other ingredients affecting absorption of it.
What do grain- free diets have to do with this?
Apart from the genetic component of taurine deficiency and DCM, the leading theory on why these cases are occurring are diets that they have termed BEG diets, which stands for boutique, exotic ingredients, and grain free diets. It’s not necessarily that these diets do not meet the taurine requirements or that they are grain free. The AVMA (American veterinary medical association) published a paper in the journal of American veterinary medicine in December 2018, specifically on DCM and diet, titled: Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know? This was a very interesting read, a few key things stood out, Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, Ph.D., DACVN, provided an update to the research on DCM and emphasized the issue is not just grain-free diets, saying:
The apparent link between BEG diets (boutique diets, exotic ingredients, grain free) 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 commonly found in BEG diets, such as exotic meats, vegetables, and fruits.
Many of the diets studied included ingredients such as peas and lentils including chickpeas, beans, and potatoes/sweet potatoes as the carbohydrate substitute for the grains. Legumes are low in sulphur containing amino acids which are needed to synthesize taurine in dogs, and also contain nutritional factors that have shown to have negative effects and can inhibit this process.
In January 2019, UC Davis made a post about the FDA’s reports on it’s website, a study was done in December on this topic, the lead author of the study, Dr. Joshua Stern, a veterinary cardiologist and geneticist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine stated the following; The problem may not be that the diet is “grain-free” or “legume-heavy” but that ingredients are interacting to reduce availability of taurine or that other nutrients are missing or interacting in the formulation. For example, while a lot of pet owners may not want to see “by-products” in their dog’s food, often the by-products contain organ meat like heart and kidney, which are good sources of taurine. The industry needs to do more research with new ingredients and their interactions and how they affect the absorption of other ingredients to find what safe options to include.
What we have learned
Researchers are still investigating a potential links to grain free diets and taurine deficiencies leading to dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. Some dogs in the study improved after a diet change from one grain-free diet to another, and this finding, along with the differences identified between dogs fed various BEG diets, suggested that DCM was not necessarily tied to the grain-free status of the diet. These dogs were frequently fed diets containing foodstuffs such as kangaroo, duck, buffalo, salmon, lamb, bison, venison, lentils, peas, fava beans, tapioca, barley, or chickpeas as major ingredients. It is believed these types of ingredients interact in a way that leads to taurine deficiency.
In the article from AVMA with Lisa M. Freeman, a passage at the start of the article reads: The extent of this issue is not clear, not all cases have been confirmed to be linked to diet and a true association has not been proven to exist. We need to keep in mind that not all cases submitted of DCM also had taurine deficiency and not all those with taurine deficiencies were fed a grain-free diet. Because of this, not all researchers are advising that a diet change is required since research is really just getting started with the link to grain free diets. A study was published in 1995 about DCM, this research suggested that lamb & rice, low protein, high fiber diets were associated with taurine deficiency in some dogs, as well as beet pulp can also increase the risk of taurine deficiency in dogs. This does not completely line up with the recent findings so it needs to be understood that they are still in the middle of their studies, a lot more needs to be done to find a solid correlation and the hypotheses can change many times until then.
In addition, the apparent breed predispositions suggested that genetic factors, breed-specific metabolic abnormalities, or low metabolic rates might have also been playing a role; it is not just the diet as emphasised in the studies.
Should you be concerned to feed Mega Dog or Bold Raw brands?
The answer to this is simple. No. Our food does not contain the ingredients of concern or pose a risk of taurine deficiency. We are a raw food so there is no cooking and little processing (just grind, mix, form, and freeze), so there is no denaturing of amino acids, and loss of taurine. Also, we include organ meats in all our blends so there is more bioavailable taurine instead of using only muscle meat. Though both our brands are grain-free we do not replace those grains with other ingredients of concern such as peas, beans, and potatoes. Additionally, we do not include exotic fruits or meats such as kangaroo, bison, or wild boar that do not have the extensive research like other proteins.
We take pride in our ingredients being local, simple and wholesome. Our proteins include chicken, beef, turkey, duck, pork and rabbit (only in bold). Our vegetables are only 7% of the diet, a short list of just carrots, broccoli, zucchini and collard greens. Part of our philosophy is less is more when it comes to the number of ingredients in our food; this limits any possibility of the ingredients interacting with each other in a negative way affecting taurine availability or absorption. Mega dog and Bold Raw are safe for all dog breeds of all ages.
AVMA. Canine heart disease may relate to legumes, potatoes. Updated March 15, 2019. Available at: www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/190401h.aspx. Accessed July 18, 2019.
Freeman LM, Stern JA, Fries R, Adin DB, Rush JE. (2018) Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1;253(11):1390-1394. doi: 10.2460/javma.253.11.1390.
Kaplan JL, Stern JA, Fascetti AJ, Larsen JA, Skolnik H, et al. (2018) Taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy in golden retrievers fed commercial diets. PLOS ONE 13(12): e0209112.
The SkeptVet. Evidence Update: Grain-free and other “BEG” Diets Associated with Heart Disease in Dogs. Dec 14, 2018. Available at: http://skeptvet.com/…/evidence-update-grain-free-and-other…/Accessed July 18, 2019.
US FDA. FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Updated July 27, 2019. Available at: www.fda.gov/…/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-cert…. Accessed July 16, 2018.
Quinton A, UC Davis. Dogs on some popular, grain-free diets could be at risk of heart disease. Jan 31, 2019. Available at: www.universityofcalifornia.edu/…/dogs-some-popular-grain-fr…. Accessed July 17, 2018.
Taylor Luther, B.Sc