Thanks to the staff at Lake Harriet Veterinary clinic in Minneapolis, who held an informational session on this topic. This summary is based on the information they passed along:

The bottom line, unfortunately, is that there is still no answer about what is the cause of this heart disease. There appears to be a connection between eating grain free diets containing legumes or potatoes (white or sweet)—even diets that contain adequate taurine levels—and becoming taurine deficient; however, there is a wide range of timeframes during which the dog eats grain free before developing taurine deficiency: some dogs are affected in a very short time (a month or so) and other dogs eat grain-free food their whole lives and are never affected. The reason for the different response times is unknown. Golden Retrievers and Border Collies have a higher incidence of diet-responsive taurine deficiency than other breeds.

“Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a form of heart disease in which the heart muscle becomes weak and the heart becomes enlarged. This results in poor heart function, leading to exercise intolerance, collapse, pale gums, coughing, and panting. Eventually, DCM results in complete heart failure. Many dogs show no symptoms until the disease is quite advanced.” (from the Lake Harriet Veterinary session handout)

DCM is not inconsequential, and we still can’t predict who will be susceptible or how long it will take to develop. So, what should you do?

First, forget my advice from the previous newsletter about supplementing with taurine. Why? Because if one of the current hypotheses ends up being true – that grain free diets (legumes and/or potato) bind taurine or interfere with the production of taurine in the dog’s body – and you continue to feed those grain-free foods, then it doesn’t matter where the taurine comes from, it will still be unavailable to the dog.

Second, if you are concerned, you can get a blood test that measures the taurine level in your dog. Get the whole-blood test, not the plasma test, because the whole-blood measurement is more accurate. If it is in the normal range, then you can relax. If it is low, then you and your vet can respond (with echocardiogram, diet change, and supplementation).

Third, you can switch to grain-in foods (or raw). If you have been feeding grain free, make it a slow transition. And I’ll put in another plug here for rotation. Feed different brands and different proteins. No one has the magic formula for the best diet for every dog, so hedge your bets and feed them lots of different foods. The variety will make up for deficiencies and overages of nutrients in any one formula. Because each manufacturer tends to use the same vitamin-mineral supplements in all their varieties, it is important to buy different brands. With our Frequent Barker Program, you’ll still get the perks no matter what brand you buy.

Last, if you’re on Facebook, you can follow this issue by becoming part of the Facebook group Taurine-Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy. It is overseen by a veterinary cardiologist, Joshua Stern, DVM, PhD of the University of California Davis, who is a leading researcher in this field.

We will continue to pass along updated information as this issue is being studied.

Finally, let me address another piece of advice that came up at the information session and that appears in the Facebook group documents. These sources recommend buying dog foods made by companies that have certified animal nutrition professionals on staff and that do feeding trials as opposed to simply formulating foods based on AAFCO nutrient profiles. This is the best of all possible worlds, especially if the feeding trials involve many dogs and last years and not the minimum of 8 dogs for 6 months. The reality is that the only companies that do this (can afford to do this) are Nestle (Purina), Hills (Science Diet), and Mars (Royal Canin). I can’t bring myself to recommend and carry in stock the foods that these companies manufacture. I am not a certified animal nutritionist, so what do I know? But I don’t believe in feeding dogs a diet based on corn and animal by-products – nothing like a dog in the wild would eat. So I will continue to recommend the brands I have carefully chosen, and encourage food rotation to increase the odds of complete nutrition.