Kibble may be putting some dogs at risk for fatal heart condition

Before the pet food industry realized taurine was an essential amino acid for cats, many cats were dropping dead from “idiopathic” Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). It was considered idiopathic until they figured out it was actually caused by a taurine deficiency in the early 1990s [3], so now, “complete and balanced” commercial cat foods must get supplemental taurine added back into the kibble (because taurine, like many other amino acids, is denatured or made unavailable for metabolism after cooking and processing [1,2]).

But since dogs can synthesize their own taurine from other amino acids (unlike cats), taurine is still not considered an essential amino acid for them. So “complete and balanced” dog foods have no minimum requirement for taurine [4].

Carnitine is a vitamin-like derivative of an amino acid, and it is also found in very low levels in dry dog food that plays a large role in heart function, and carnitine deficiency has been a documented cause of DCM in dogs as well [5]. Carnitine is also not considered essential for dogs [4], so commercial dog foods do not have to meet a minimum requirement.

Not only are there no minimum requirements for taurine or carnitine in commercial dog foods, but many common ingredients in dry foods have low digestibility and antinutrient effects that further decrease the absorption of taurine, carnitine, and other amino acids and nutrients [6,8]. High heat processing and extended periods of storage have also been linked to decreased availability and absorption of amino acids [7,9,10,11].

There are many documented cases of dogs developing DCM due to a taurine deficiency [12,13,15,17] and some breeds like Golden Retrievers and Newfoundlands are thought to have a predisposition to developing taurine deficiency [14,16,18].

Grain free foods that utilize legumes have been put in the spotlight on this issue [19]. Legumes are high in protein, but have very low biological value and digestion in dogs. Many grain free formulas contain high amounts of legumes (including lentils, peas, and beans) in place of grains. If a significant amount of protein in a food is coming from legumes instead of higher quality sources like meat, fish, or eggs, then the dog is being deprived of useable amino acids to synthesize taurine. This results in taurine deficient DCM.

However, keep in mind that this isn’t exclusive to grain free foods or legumes! Remember that lamb meal and rice formulas were also proven in many studies to have participated in taurine deficiency. Grain inclusive diets including whole grain rice, rice bran, or barley have also resulted in low blood taurine levels too [15].

For a lot of dogs, this might not be an issue. But for breeds like Dobermans that are notorious for their suffering cardiovascular health, or breeds that have been documented to have a potential predisposition to developing taurine deficiency like Goldens or Newfies, it isn’t far-fetched to believe that getting enough dietary taurine is essential for optimal health – even if current pet food regulations don’t consider it essential.

So what should you do if you are worried about taurine deficiency? Adding a taurine supplement doesn’t address the initial problem: that the diet is lacking in high quality protein. Taurine deficiency won’t be the only repercussion of this. Remember when I said amino acids are involved in virtually every metabolic process in the body? Think about all of the issues that can arise over time due to amino acid deficiency… not just heart problems, but also joint problems, immune system problems, cognition problems, digestion problems, and so, SO much more.

I recommend addressing the root of the issue. Switch to a kibble whose main source of protein comes from animal sources, not plant sources – and avoid lamb meal or by-product meals. If you see legumes like peas, lentils, and beans in multiple ingredients, skip it – especially protein isolates of legumes, like “pea protein”. And most importantly, provide your dog with high quality protein by adding fresh foods to the diet in the form of raw or lightly cooked meat, fish, and eggs. Not having to worry about taurine deficient DCM will be just one of many benefits of introducing fresh foods!

So, feeding raw or supplementing the diet with taurine and/or carnitine rich foods could help promote a healthy heart and make up for some of what kibble lacks.

Of course, DCM in some breeds like Dobermans is genetic, so unfortunately there is no guarantee this will cure or prevent DCM in every case. But any breed susceptible to DCM can use all the help they can get, and this is just one way to make sure you are providing all the building blocks the body needs for optimal heart health, since it is well documented that kibble alone may not do that.

The following table contains a list of food items and their taurine content [20, 21, 22]. Seafoods, dark meats, and organ meats generally contain the most taurine. Each food item in this table is raw unless otherwise noted.

Taurine (mg/100g)
Tuna (albacore) 176-200
Tuna (canned) 42
Tuna (whole) 284
Salmon 60-130
Mackerel 78
Mackerel (whole) 207
Cod 31
Whiting 40
Haddock 28
Whitefish 114-151
Clam (fresh) 520
Clam (canned) 152
Shrimp 155-390
Scallops 827
Octopus 388
Mussels 655
Oysters 396-698
Herring (whole) 154
Capelin (whole) 144
Smelt (whole) 69
Chicken (light meat) 18
Chicken (dark meat) 83-170
Chicken breast 16
Chicken leg 34
Chicken liver 110
Chicken hearts & livers 118
Chicken necks & backs 58
Chicken (whole) 100
Turkey (dark meat) 306
Turkey (light meat) 30
Turkey (ground, 7% fat) 210
Duck leg (meat) 178
Duck leg (skin) 62
Rabbit (whole, ground) 37
Beef (ground, 15% fat) 40
Beef (ground, 25% fat) 28
Beef heart 65
Beef kidney 69
Beef spleen 87
Beef lung 96
Beef tongue 175
Beef gullet 80
Pork loin 50-61
Pork lung 78
Pork gullet 65
Pork liver 86
Pork kidney 77
Lamb leg 47
Lamb kidney 24
Venison 60
Veal 40
Horse 31