Can Dog Food Cause the Heart Disease DCM?

I received a passionate email recently from Mike, a listener who sadly lost his dog due to the heart condition DCM. He believed that his dog died from eating grain-free dog food. Possibly his veterinarian told him it was “caused by nutrition” or Mike reading the confusing FDA reports in the press in 2018-19. However, tying death from heart disease to grain-free dog food is not my conclusion — nor that of many nutrition experts in the veterinary field — from the evidence (or lack of it). Regardless, my heart goes out to him for his heart-breaking loss. I am grateful to Mike for being a listener who trusts me and turns to me for advice, a trust that I strive to earn from all my listeners.

Mike’s Email

I recently lost my Standard Poodle (5 years old) to DCM caused by nutrition (DCM). My poodle was not overweight as she was 35 lbs, very lean and athletic build, seemed to be in great health, however, she was fed a grain free diet her entire life. I’ve read your blog, as well as the the FDA’s announcements, your Podcast on July 13th, 2019 with Dr. Ryan Yamka. Can you please do a follow up on this now that we have wayyyyy more data that has proven grain free foods can cause DCM?

I do understand that it is natural to want to find blame somewhere when we suffer a tragic loss, but I believe Mike has been misled. There has been no new data, nor proof, nor even clarification, since the FDA’s last report in June of 2019. It’s frustrating (even irresponsible, I think) to have sent up some vague warning flares, then left things up in the air as the FDA did. It is particularly difficult for victims of DCM, wanting answers.

I’ve written blogs several times before about the controversy about a possible link between DCM and diet (HERE and HERE), and I have done several radio interviews, too (HERE and HERE). But Mike’s email inspired me to do this follow-up blog.

If you want to do a really deep dive into the topic — with the issues dissected and spelled out — the most comprehensive, intelligent and thoughtful response of any I have seen came from Dr. Jean Dodds of Hemopet (a private non-profit animal blood bank) HERE. As she wrote, “DCM is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors. However, we think the FDA is causing public panic and overt veterinary concern by not presenting definitive conclusions but implying risk by inference in listed certain pet food brands.”


FDA has been looking at a specific heart condition in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) since 2014. They didn’t issue a report until 2018, which was followed by two more reports, the last one being in June of 2019. The FDA reports were inconclusive, imprecise, and misleading in their presentation, and created havoc for dog owners, veterinarians, and the pet food industry.

The FDA reports implied an (unproven, undocumented) association between diet and DCM in dogs. They went further and called out sixteen brands of dog food that had been eaten by the dogs being studied — both Super Premium grain-free and traditional grain-in foods — without any ethical or logical reason to name the brands. This was basically an irresponsible decision since no cause and effect had been proven by any credible scientific standards between any pet food and this medical condition. Every pet food manufacturer has multiple SKU’s of their foods — with different names and distinct ingredient lists, but the FDA mentioned their brand name and painted everything they made with the same brush and suggestion of “danger.” This was damaging to the companies’ reputations and their ability to do business, as well as to the pet stores that had been recommending those brands to their satisfied customers for decades.

Unproven Guesses with Harsh Consequences

None of the FDA reports draws any credible explanation for the apparent sudden rise (or is it actually increased reporting?) of this heart condition, DCM. Let’s also keep in mind that DCM had occurred in only a few hundred dogs out of the 17 million dogs in the United States, while millions of heart-healthy dogs (mine included) ate various brands of grain-free kibble as all or part of their diet for their entire lifetime. These FDA reports went a step further (with what many experts in the pet field believe were reckless speculations) by floating what was basically another “thought balloon,” suggesting that a category of Super Premium dry dog food, known as “grain-free,” might be at the root of the problem. There was no scientific study, proof, evidence or logic for the reports to suggest that connection.

The FDA indicated that grain-free foods possibly could be the problem, meaning those that substituted peas, lentils and other “pulses” for wheat, corn and soy. Those latter three traditional dog food ingredients were the ones recommended to avoid as less nutritious by pet nutrition experts (myself included) — and even on the walls of Petco stores which celebrated “No Corn, No Wheat, No Soy.”

The Fall Out From “Cancel Culture”

Despite the lack of scientifically designed research on DCM and diet over that five year period from 2014-2019, the three FDA reports were grabbed by the media and caused enormous anxiety for pet owners and their medical providers. It rang an unwarranted alarm bell and a disaster for the pet food companies that manufacture — and the stores that sell — this category of dog foods. Many dog owners and their veterinarians panicked — whether or not the dogs had heart problems of any kind, and even if they had healthy dogs — and some people “canceled” any and all grain-free foods unnecessarily.

Does dog food cause heart disease?Grain-free diets were created to meet consumer desires. Many pet food companies went to great lengths to create grain-free formulas because the most well-informed pet food consumers wanted alternatives to the often low-quality starches being used to make kibble. Wheat, corn and soy were high on that list of ingredients. The pet food companies created Super Premium grain-free diets in good faith using quality ingredients to create nutritionally balanced and tasty foods, per AAFCO requirements. There are no villains here and no bad actors. To this point, we don’t honestly know whether these foods pose a health problem at all, or whether individual dogs’ metabolisms are the cause.

The FDA is a Government Agency

Let’s all keep in mind that the FDA is a vast government entity, primarily intended to keep the human food chain safe for people. It’s good that the FDA pays attention to the pet food industry, but it has to be the right kind of attention. The FDA fell short here, an example of how a big Federal government agency may not be the best monitor in complex medical situations like the DCM issue. Now, the pet food industry itself (as well as Columbia Grain International, which represents the farmers growing the peas, lentils and other pulses, with whom I did an interview HERE on Dog Talk®) have designed and are funding proper scientific studies to get to whatever actual facts may emerge about possible nutritional shortcomings in grain-free dog food.

Since the initial 2018 FDA report about possible causes for this complex (and relatively rare) condition, there are still only suppositions about the reason for DCM. There is still no clear cause or explanation at this point in time, October 2020.

What Kind of Car Does Your Dog Travel in?

The first time I read the FDA report it struck me as a “red herring” at best to ask what foods the afflicted dogs were eating. Frankly, if the FDA in their report had noted the brands of cars driven by these dog owners, I think it would have had about the same relevance as asking for a pet food brand name. What if there were toxic fumes coming off the upholstery in a vehicle – might that cause DCM? And if they had asked that seemingly irrelevant question about a brand of car, wouldn’t it make sense to ask the year, make and model number? A pet food brand name wouldn’t be relevant unless the report drilled down to which version of the pet food and which formula — and then drew a conclusion that a majority of afflicted dogs all ate that exact recipe. That was certainly not the case, and numerous dogs with DCM condition ate grain-in food, too.

Proper science has to prove cause and effect — it cannot merely speculate. Pet owners are edgy about pet foods. They read things. They’ve been burned and frightened by recalled pet foods. But pet-loving people run and work at pet food companies. They would never knowingly do anything to harm dogs or cats. Let’s not be so quick to believe that pet food could be the culprit in DCM. There are many lifestyle factors and breed predisposition and genetics that affect canine health. Let’s use common sense and cool heads to see if there is a way to identify and eliminate the underlying causes of this heart condition. Changes in breeding decisions (since most dogs were purebreds) plus early diagnosis and intervention might reduce or eliminate this disease and the heartbreak it can cause, so people like Mike don’t have to lose their loved dogs way too young.

What Do I Feed my Own Dogs?

I have always advocated offering two meals a day with a mixture of grain-free kibble (rotating formulas and even brands, depending on whether a super premium brand might be on sale!) along with high-quality protein. I mix-and-match between canned/pouched pet food, freshly cooked frozen food, dehydrated, and healthy human foods(cottage cheese, yogurt, scrambled eggs). What brands do I favor? There are literally dozens of wonderful ones! Of course, I personally favor the pet food companies that support my professional efforts to educate and inspire other pet owners like me, who care a lot about what ingredients go into a pet food and how and where it is made. Weruva, Merrick, Evermore, The Honest Kitchen, Dr. Elsey’s — I admire them all for raising the bar of excellence in pet food creation and am grateful they are out there crafting terrific foods for us all.

—Tracie Hotchner

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