Over the past few months, one word has dominated the canine nutrition world, creating confusion and concern among dog lovers. That word is taurine and it seems like everyone wants to know more about taurine for dogs.
Last July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its investigation into increased veterinary reports of the heart condition dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs consuming certain types of commercial diets.
Some of these dogs also presented with low blood levels of taurine, a known cause of DCM in certain predisposed breeds, so it’s understandable that many people are concerned about the possible relationship between diet and taurine-deficiency DCM.
I’d like to dive into the topic of taurine for dogs and why it’s important, as well as hopefully quell some of the confusion so that you can make calm, informed decisions as they relate to your dog’s health.
Taurine is typically referred to as an amino acid; however, it is not a traditional amino acid because it does not serve as a building block of protein but rather is found abundantly in tissues and organs throughout the body, including the brain, heart, retina and muscles. Taurine is considered a non-essential amino acid for dogs and adult humans because our bodies can synthesize it from the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine in the presence of vitamin B-6. Cats and babies cannot manufacture taurine, so for them it is an essential amino acid that must be obtained strictly from the diet.
Meat, eggs and seafood are the richest sources of taurine. It is not found in plant foods.
Taurine plays an important role in many biological and physiological processes, including producing bile salts necessary for fat digestion, regulating electrolytes in cells and balancing neurotransmitters in the brain.
DCM in dogs is characterized by weakness of the heart muscle, leading to complications such as an enlarged heart and congestive heart failure, which can be fatal. Genetics is considered the greatest risk factor, with large and giant breeds including Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds and Saint Bernards most susceptible. However, recently reported cases of DCM have risen and expanded to include other atypical breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers and even mixed breeds, prompting public concern — and an FDA investigation.
Four of the atypical cases reported — three Golden Retrievers and one Labrador Retriever — presented with low whole blood levels of taurine. Four other atypical cases — a Miniature Schnauzer, a Shih Tzu and two Labrador Retrievers — had normal taurine levels.
Common among these recent cases is that the affected dogs consumed commercial foods listing potatoes or legumes as primary ingredients, which likely but not necessarily indicates a grain-free food because potatoes and/or legumes typically substitute for grain in commercial diets. The concern is that these grain-free diets are somehow causing low blood levels of taurine and resulting in taurine-deficiency DCM, even in breeds not normally predisposed.
We know that reports of DCM have risen in dogs consuming grain-free diets, however we don’t know why, and that is an important missing link. So, while we await further results of the FDA’s investigation, we need to be cautious about drawing “causation” from “trends.”
The current information spreading online is leading to unwarranted public panic, as at this time there is no proof that grain-free diets are the culprit, and there are many other possible factors that can come into play, including …
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Animal Science and Technology found that beet pulp, a common ingredient in dog foods, decreased taurine levels in dogs by increasing the amounts of bile acids excreted in the feces and by decreasing overall protein digestibility. Since the amino acids methionine and cysteine are needed to synthesize taurine, decreased protein digestibility would reduce their availability and could result in taurine deficiency. This doesn’t mean that beet pulp is the only culprit in these most recent cases, but it is one of many possibilities that warrants further investigation.
Many people ask me if they should supplement taurine for dogs in their dog’s diet to help avoid any potential risk of DCM. I am cautious when making recommendations because, again, every dog is an individual, and supplementation should be weighed in relation to other factors, including the dog’s general health status and diet.
If you are concerned, I recommend testing your dog’s whole blood and plasma levels of methionine, cysteine and taurine in coordination with your veterinarian and a lab experienced with these types of analyses. If the levels are low, you and your veterinarian can determine the proper course of action.
An important caveat is that all plant-based diets must contain taurine supplementation. Decades ago, prior to understanding taurine’s role in heart health, commercial vegan diets did not typically include it, resulting in unnecessary cases of DCM in dogs consuming these diets. Now, taurine for dogs is included in reputable vegan diets. Be sure to carefully check labels.
These new incidences of DCM in dogs certainly warrants further investigation; however, it is far too soon to draw any conclusions as to causality or to take action based on blind panic.
I also get asked a lot if it’s unsafe to feed a grain-free diet. I am not “anti-grain” at all; however, if a dog does well on a grain-free diet, at this time I see no reason to change it.
The bottom line is that every dog should be treated as an individual and specific dietary recommendations, including taurine supplementation, weighed as part of a holistic health and nutrition plan.
Editor’s Note: Interested in reading more studies on the connection between taurine and the risk of heart disease? Check out these links from schools like UC Davis, Tufts and the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Thumbnail: Photography ©BraunS | Getty Images.
Diana Laverdure-Dunetz, MS, is a canine nutritionist and co-author, with W. Jean Dodds, DVM, of two books, including Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health. Their online course, Complete Canine Nutrition, can be found at myhealthydog.dog.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!