What is DCM ?

Animal cardiology. African American veterinarian doc checking little dog's heart rate with

I am sure you have heard this in the news recently. DCM killing dogs and the potential link to grain free kibble. But, what is DCM? It’s official name is Dilated Cardiomyopathy. This is a heart that is enlarged and unable to function properly. It is not strong enough to pump the blood and therefore the heart chambers fill with fluid. Basically, it is congestive heart failure.

Image of the heart showing the inside

Symptoms of DCM can be heart murmur, increase in blood pressure, weakness, exercise intolerance, cough and collapse. If you are concerned that you are seeing any of these in your dog, please contact your vet.

What causes DCM and how does nutrition play a role?

Some breeds have a genetic predisposition for DCM. These can include Doberman, Boxer, Newfoundland, Scottish Deerhound, Irish Wolfhound, Great Dane and Cocker Spaniel. Large older male dogs form the largest group with DCM. The typical age for a dog to be diagnosed with DCM is between 4 and 10 years.

However, what we are seeing in the news, are breeds not normally associated with a genetic predisposition, being diagnosed with DCM. The second largest group being mixed breeds. ( the largest is Golden Retrievers) But what is most disturbing, is that 93% of these dogs have been on “grain free” kibble. Now wait a minute! Aren’t they supposed to be healthier than regular kibble? Don’t we pay a premium price for these foods? Let’s take a look at what is on the labels.

Here are the ingredients in a well known grain based dog food.

Corn, meat and bone meal, corn gluten meal, beef fat, soybean meal and poultry by product meal.

Here we have a diet high in grain and carbohydrates. Now I am not going to get into how inappropriate these are for your dog, just know that they are.

These are the ingredients in a well know grain free kibble.

Beef, Pork, beef meal, red lentils, pinto beans, green peas, green lentils, chickpeas, yellow peas and lentil fiber.

This looks much better, right? But, what we have here is a diet very high in carbohydrates and legumes. While legumes have a fair amount of protein, in this case, the protein from the lentils is greater than the protein from the meat. So why, you may ask, is this a problem? Protein is protein, right? Wrong!


Protein is made up of chains of 22 amino acids, 8 of which are essential. This means that we have to get those amino acids from our diet because our bodies, and our dogs bodies, can’t make them. Animal sources, ie: meat and eggs, are a source of what we call complete protein. Legumes are not. What do I mean by a complete protein? A source that contains all of the essential amino acids. Legumes do not have all of the essential amino acids and are therefore incomplete. Now, it is possible to make legumes complete by combining them with other foods that have those missing amino acids in them. But, I digress.

Skull of a dog showing teeth

Why are legumes not a good choice for your dog. Because your dog is a carnivore, not an herbivore or even an omnivore. Plain and simple. Dogs may be able to survive on beans , peas and lentils. But they will not thrive the way they will on a meat diet. Dogs have sharp pointed teeth and a short digestive tract with a hydrochloric acid based digestive system. They do not have a chambered  stomach where they can ferment legumes, or grains for that matter. They are not a cow.

How a dogs body works

Back to the grain free diet and DCM. What is causing it?

Research is being done right now to answer that question, and they are struggling with it. What do we know so far? Dr. Josh Stern at UC Davis in California, is one of the researchers looking into this. He has found that some instances of DCM were linked to a diet high in peas and legumes. Also, potatoes and sweet potatoes are questionable. However, it is taurine that is standing out. Taurine is a Sulphur containing amino acid that is essential in cats but not dogs.Without it, the heart muscle becomes weak and that’s when DCM can develop. Dogs can make some taurine IF they have adequate levels of cystine and methionine, two more Sulphur containing amino acids. However, on the grain free diets, dogs appear to be deficient in all three amino acids, one reason possibly being that legumes lack methionine. Good news right? We have identified the problem. Not so fast. Because not all of the dogs had low taurine levels. Confused yet? If so, you are not alone.

So what are dog owners to do? Until we know more, I am telling people to feed a species appropriate raw meat diet. Especially heart meat. Chicken, lamb, goat, beef or turkey. All are equally full of taurine. I say raw heart because taurine is very sensitive to heat and should not be cooked. Freeze dried or air dried seems to be OK too.

Above is a species appropriate raw diet that I prepared for my dogs. It contains New Zealand green lipped muscles, chicken back, green tripe, grass fed beef, goat heart and a sprinkle of bee pollen.


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Joy Eriksen CSAN

Certified Small Animal Naturopath

My name is Joy Eriksen and I am a Certified Small Animal Naturopath. My passion is helping people with their companion animals. Keeping them healthy and vibrant for a long and happy life.

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