Raw Diets and Taurine Deficient Cardiomyopathy

By Laurie S. Coger, DVM,CVCP

Recently I surveyed 100 people who feed their dogs a raw diet. I decided to do this after seeing many of reports of raw fed dogs having low blood taurine levels, and some being affected by Dilated Cardiomyopathy. You may be aware that this is a big problem in dogs eating grain free, high legume foods, especially Golden Retrievers. There are several theories about why this is happening – how little meat is used in these foods, ingredient interference in absorption, nutrient degradation, and more. However, given that taurine is found in greatest quantities in meats, I was very surprised to see raw fed dogs on the list of those with low taurine levels. You can find this data by joining the Facebook group Taurine-Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy. At present over 900 dogs’ data has been submitted.

Taurine is an amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Taurine is not considered an essential amino acid for the dog, as the dog’s body can make taurine from two other amino acids, methionine and cysteine. Both of these amino acids are also found largely in meats. The process of making taurine is not especially efficient, so I lean towards making sure my dog’s meals have adequate taurine in them.

In my survey, I asked raw feeders what type of meal plan they used. Over 30% utilized a commercial product, and another 21% combined a commercial product with other fresh foods. Fifty-six percent fed three or four different meats over the course of a week, and 13% fed five or more. A whopping 88% included fruits and/or vegetables in their dog’s diet.

A large number of respondents, 60%, used commercial supplements to ensure their diet was complete. But only 44% were supplementing with taurine rich foods. (Mussels, oysters, sardines, and poultry dark meats are great natural sources.) Yet 72% chose whole foods to make their diet complete. These results showed me that while people want to get as much nutrition from whole foods as possible, the majority were relying on supplements to be sure their dog got everything they needed.

What these results don’t explain is why taurine might be lacking in the diet of raw fed dogs in the owner submitted data. As I read the descriptions of what was fed to the dogs, I saw many feeding plans that seemed to lack variety, or seemed nutritionally incomplete. I saw commercial products used that I knew were not nutritionally complete. And I saw amounts of food that seemed to be far too little for the size of the dog being fed. In terms of the kibbles being fed, I saw brands that I once thought were OK, and others that I was critical of. In both of these categories, there were dogs with adequate taurine levels and those with deficient levels. Clearly, there is much, much more to this problem than just the ingredients of the diet.

So, what should you do if you own a Golden Retriever, and have been feeding one of the brands implicated as causing taurine deficiency? Or if you are feeding a raw diet? First and foremost, don’t panic! Make an appointment with your veterinarian to have your dog examined, paying special attention to any cardiac abnormalities. You may want to submit blood samples for taurine testing. This is best done at the University of California-Davis Veterinary College. Depending on those results, you may want to have a veterinary cardiologist perform an echocardiogram to evaluate your dog’s heart function. Click here for a PDF info sheet from the Stern Cardiac Genetics Lab’s current recommendations.

It’s very important to NOT supplement your dog with taurine before having the blood sample drawn – you need to know what the base level is on your dog’s regular diet. Then discuss with your veterinary cardiologist or a nutritionist. If you are feeding a fresh food diet, whether cooked or raw, have an expert calculate the nutrients, so you can rest easy that you are meeting your dog’s needs. Or if you are using a commercial product (raw, cooked, or kibble) call the company and ask what the taurine level is in the foods you are using. Whatever diet plan you choose, it’s crucial that you know what you are feeding.

For discussion and questions, please hop over to my Facebook page!

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