Heart Disease in Dogs and Cats and a Link with Nutrition.

I am currently in the process of searching for a new Doberman puppy. By currently, I mean for two years.  Responsible dog ownership is something I take very seriously.  I have been investigating breeders and bloodlines for a little darling that will keep me and the goats company on the trails.  Not an easy task, especially since Dobies are one of the breeds of dogs that are prone to DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy).  Although my main investigative emphasis was an examination of genetics, I was dismayed to learn that this heart disease is increasing in many dog breeds, and not just the larger ones.  It appears as though diet may now be implicated. And more expensive may not necessarily be better.

When browsing through some of the latest dog and cat food offerings and reviews for these various formulations, I was astonished at the number of grain-free, low protein, high carbohydrate formulations for dogs. And I was stunned at the prices.  Dog foods featuring cruelty-free pork (a good thing) and honey roasted squash (whaaaat?) or kangaroo with chickpeas were listed. Oy!!! Although they sound delightful for a celebration of one’s anniversary or promotion, as a steady diet for any dog I was simply amazed. And puzzled.

Now, I am no stranger to weird food ingredients for animals.  When preparing a mash-up for the echidnas (spiny anteaters from Australia) at the San Diego Zoo, we always had to add a few drops of formic acid.  It was either that or import ants from the family Formica and hope they all got eaten. But this was an essential ingredient in echidna food to keep them in the pink.

Still, having raised and trained many breeds of dogs for field work, search and rescue, and herding, I have never seen the need for anything other than a top quality, standard feed, supplemented occasionally with table scraps of the right kind, such as eggs, game, and cooked vegetables. They all thrived on this regime, except one Rhodesian Ridgeback whose head swelled up like a soccer ball after his first sampling of boiled eggs.  He had a genuine and serious allergy, and so eggs and formulations with eggs in them were off the menu. But in general, top quality standard formulations, rotated through about every 3 months, seemed to do the trick. So why the whole grain-free thing?

What started as a legitimate scare with chemical contaminated Chinese wheat in pet products has morphed into a ‘gluten-free owner therefore gluten-free pet’ phenomenon.  It is very prudent for the cautious pet owner to know the country of origin of the ingredients, the ratios of ingredients, and the purpose of the actual ingredients themselves in the animal’s nutrition needs.  But yielding to fads is costing many purebreds their lives.

Cats are obligate carnivores, they must have meat and lots of it.  If it bothers you that your cat would have to be a killer in order to survive in the wild, then this may not be perfect pet for you.  Thankfully, most cat owners seem to have come to grips with this. The rate of DCM among cats has not increased, and the very carnivorousness of cats may be to thank for this (note to people who think they can keep cats healthy on soy products…buy pet insurance because you’re going to need it). High quality, and where possible, cruelty free and environmentally friendly meat, will keep your cat’s heart healthy. The recommended brands of cat food that contain no pesticides or heavy metals (especially for the seafood selections) will the subject of another post.

Dogs are omnivores, therefore their diets can be more varied.  That is good news. The bad news, however, is that it appears they must have some meat in their diets or risk heart disease. Well-meaning, vegetarian dog owners have been unwittingly putting their pet’s longevity in jeopardy.  DCM rates are rising rapidly in many breeds of dogs, especially for the ever-popular Golden Retriever. Dog breeds historically at high risk for this health issue are Dobies, Great Danes, Wolfhounds, Saint Bernard’s, Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees, Portuguese Water Dogs, and many other of the larger breeds. Smaller breeds such as Cocker and Cavalier King Charles spaniels are also at a high risk.

It appears as though an essential nutrient is missing from many of the boutique dog foods. The amino acid ‘taurine’ has been linked to the prevention and remediation of DCM. Wheat doesn’t have any, neither does honey roasted squash. And the science so far is intriguing, but not widely agreed upon. What veterinarians do know is that in both dogs and cats with DCM, a taurine supplement added to food can reverse DCM.

So what is the conscientious pet owner to do?  I cannot presume to make a sweeping recommendation for everyone, but I know that I, in the US, would minimize my pet’s carbon footprint by doing without the kangaroo.  I have raised beef cattle, and been through the whole slaughter and by-products thing, and I can assure you that there are plenty of beef by-products in the US to go around for all pet products (and if I lived in Australia, I would research the amount of taurine in kangaroo and if it measured up, I would go with it!)

It seems as though the emerging research indicates that a grain-free diet may be OK, but not a vegetarian only source of protein.  Your pooch is probably going to need a bit of red meat occasionally for optimum health. My personal opinion is to read widely, and when in doubt, provide a dog with the most varied diet possible.

The purpose of this post is just to raise awareness of emerging science on an aspect of pet nutrition that may give readers a way to add years to their pet’s lives, while keeping a little moolah in their wallets. I know that my connection to my animals of any species is so profound that I want to do the very best I can for them, but I don’t want to be stupid about spending on something kitschy so I can impress people at the local wine bar about how fake dedicated I am to spending the most money I possibly can on pet food (nor would I strap a diamond collar on a Papillon and then quietly not admit that I did not have the money for veterinary care without hawking the collar first, but that’s just me).

For more information on this topic, I recommend a no-nonsense analysis of taurine content of specific categories of foods at…


Also, a good, easy read on this can be found at…


And also…


When it comes to pets, read ingredients for them the same as you would for yourself.  Long live our companions!

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