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Baby had been in before. She had been fairly healthy in the past, was not taking any medications, and overall, she appeared to be a happy, 5-year-old French bulldog. But on this day, her tummy was upset, and her mom was headed out of town on business. Mom was worried about leaving her and was hoping nothing major was going on with her health. We needed to "fix" her, and fast!

Baby's exam showed that her tummy was pretty comfortable and she was not running a fever. This was good news. However, when I placed my stethoscope on her chest, I became very concerned. Baby had an irregular heartbeat, and her heart rate was very fast; 240 beats per minute compared to the normal 80-120 we would expect. We scheduled a cardiac screening and treated Baby's tummy symptoms.

X-rays, EKG, and blood pressure readings were submitted to a veterinary cardiologist for review. The results verified likely heart disease with heart enlargement and arrhythmia. The next recommendation was an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart). I started Baby on heart medications and she was soon visited by a veterinary internal medicine specialist who traveled to Hot Springs to examine her. His findings confirmed the diagnosis: dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. DCM is a condition in which one of the chambers of the heart becomes enlarged and weakened, making the heart less efficient at pumping blood. It is a very serious disease that can result in sudden death. The confusing part is that DCM is a disease typically diagnosed in Dobermans, Boxers, and Great Danes; not in small breed dogs, not in French Bulldogs.

This is where all the pieces started coming together. The internist that performed Baby's ultrasound was familiar with a new (at the time) investigation the FDA was conducting into the possible link between diet and development of DCM in dogs and cats. Specifically, they were concerned with "grain-free" diets and possible Taurine deficiency. So, we discussed diet with Baby's mom, and she had been feeding her a grain-free diet for some time now. I collected a blood sample to submit for Taurine measurement. Baby's level was significantly low.

We immediately began supplements and changed Baby's diet. We continued her heart medication but added two additional meds. Baby's next round of tests would be in three months, to monitor her progress. She wasn't "out of the woods" yet, but she was on the best treatment available and we were hopeful for her.

Baby initially did very well. She was playful and seemed to feel much better. After two months of treatment, just before she follow up appointment, I got a call that I hoped would never come; Baby had suddenly passed away at home. I was saddened by her loss and I was angry that a food Baby's mom had researched and thought was best for her was now potentially the cause of her death at 5 years of age.

Since the time of Baby's diagnosis, the FDA has continued to investigate the possible link between diet and heart disease. According to their latest statement dated June 27, there have been a total of 515 reported cases involving dogs, and nine involving cats that are part of the investigation. Foods designated as grain-free and foods with main ingredients such as peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes are the most commonly reported. Based on these cases, it appears that taurine-deficiency is not the single issue in these diets. The investigation is ongoing and no definitive conclusion has been reached.

My best advice at this time is to discuss your pet's diet with your veterinarian. Understand that he/she is qualified to make a safe nutritional recommendation for your pet. It is not about selling dog food; it is about your pet's health.

For more information from the FDA, visit

Go Magazine on 12/15/2019

Print Headline: Grain-free, not care-free

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