Skip to Content

Do Small Dog Owners Need To Worry About The Link Between Grain-Free And DCM?

Do Small Dog Owners Need To Worry About The Link Between Grain-Free And DCM?

Have you heard the buzz?

Everyone and their vet is saying to stop feeding grain-free and to switch to a grain-inclusive kibble from one of the big brands.

In case you haven’t heard, or you need a breakdown on exactly what happened, here’s what’s been going down over the past few months:

Vets have been seeing more canine patients with DCM.


Dilated myocardiopathy (DCM) is a usually-fatal heart condition typically caused by genetics, found in medium and large breeds like the Doberman Pinscher, Cocker Spaniel and Great Dane.

Recently, dogs of breeds not known to have DCM have been getting it, most notably, Golden Retrievers.

Most of these dogs were on grain-free diets, specifically those made with potatoes or legumes: peas and lentils. Switching to a grain-inclusive diet greatly increased their chances of recovery.

Though DCM is typically seen in large dogs, small dogs have been getting it too.


5 Shih Tzus, 2 Chihuahuas, 2 Pugs, 2 Maltese, a Miniature Pinscher were among the small dogs on the list.

These are just a handful of dogs, whereas millions of others have been eating grain-free for years with no problem. Even so, this disease is often fatal – we can’t take this lightly.

So, as small dog owners, we DO need to be informed about DCM.

What Kind Of Dog Food Causes DCM?

The FDA is still investigating why grain-free diets seem to be causing DCM.

The general idea is that DCM can be caused by low taurine levels. Though some dogs had normal blood taurine levels, many cases cleared up with the help of supplemented taurine.

Unlike cats, a dog’s body can synthesize taurine on its own, it needs certain amino acids to do that.

Peas, legumes and potatoes may not contain those necessary amino acids. When paired with unusual protein sources, like lamb, bison and kangaroo, that are also low in those amino acids, you get a deficiency.


What’s more, some dogs in the report were eating grain-inclusive, dehydrated raw, canned and home-cooked meals.

There is a spreadsheet available of all reported DCM cases, that shows what each dog was eating, their age, breed, and description of their symptoms.

It’s 77 pages long, with a total of 525 cases, so I couldn’t look at each and every case, but in my CTRL+F search for “raw” I saw that those who were on dehydrated raw diets seemed to have chicken as their primary protein source.

As it turns out, much of the kibble fed also contained chicken.

Dark meat chicken is a good source of taurine, but white meat is not.

Beef, veal, and pork are all good sources of taurine, along with oysters and clams.

What Should I Feed My Dog?

In my own observations, I didn’t see any cases of dogs who were eating a balanced raw diet that contained multiple protein sources.

Also, in most of the reported cases, the dog was only eating one type of dry food.

So, if you’re exclusively feeding one type of dog food that’s grain-free, contains legumes or potatoes at the top of the ingredients list, or uses an unusual protein source like kangaroo, you may want to adjust your dog’s diet.

This can be as simple as added fresh sources of amino acids to your dog’s dry food.

I really like canned sardines, salmon and oysters for my dogs. They should be packed in water with no salt added.

Many raw feeders have already been adding these foods because they’re packed with nutrients like iron and zinc, and it’s also fine to add them to dry kibble.

You can also give your dog beef and/or pork, raw or lightly cooked. Make sure you’re not just giving fatty cuts that your family doesn’t eat – fatty foods can cause pancreatitis.

You can mix these toppers into your dog’s kibble a few times per week for added nutrition.

You should also feed your dog a rotational diet.

You don’t need to stop feeding your dog’s favorite grain-free kibble, but depending on one food to meet all of your dog’s needs is a bad idea, DCM controversy or not.

It’s not as though your dog needs grains. Most dogs can benefit from fewer carbohydrates in their diet as a whole.

But to add variety, you’ll want to turn to a food that hasn’t been named in the DCM cases.

This would include foods made with corn, rice, brown rice, wheat, oats or quinoa.

Look for a protein source that is different than that of your dog’s primary food. If you’re currently feeding a duck and sweet potato formula, for example, try a turkey and oatmeal food.

I don’t have any particular dog foods to recommend at this time. My dogs eat raw, sometimes mixed with grain-free kibble. The fresh pork and beef supply plenty of amino acids that they could be missing in the dry food.

Does My Dog Have DCM?

DCM typically does not cause symptoms until the late stages.

So if you’ve been feeding one of the at-risk foods for a while, and you suspect your dog may be developing DCM, you should see your vet for an x-ray or echocardiogram to see what’s going on.

If your dog does have DCM, simply changing their food will probably not cure them. They also need to be monitored, and may need medication.

Symptoms of late-stage DCM include:

  • Getting tired quickly from exercise
  • Labored breathing or panting, especially at night
  • Pale gums
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate

Severe DCM can be treated, and your dog can survive it – in some cases, it’s even reversible. See your vet, or an emergency vet if your dog is in distress and your regular vet is not available.

Why Did We Ever Start Feeding Grain-Free?

If your dog suffers from itchy skin or indigestion, you may have been told that your dog was allergic to corn, and recommended a grain-free food – even by your vet.

But it’s actually very rare for dogs to have allergies to grains. They’re much more likely to be allergic to the protein source in their food – chicken, beef, or eggs.


Corn can still make dogs itchy.

That’s because, when stored, it can get moldy, and your dog’s symptoms can actually be a reaction to those molds. It’s not about the grains, it’s about the quality of the ingredients.

Foods made by boutique dog food companies tend to use human-grade ingredients.

If your dog had health issues, and their special grain-free diet seemed to help, switching them back to their old food could cause short-term health problems, only to maybe prevent DCM.

We need to feed our dogs for their whole-body health. DCM is just one rare health issue that can be caused by diet.

This issue is much more complicated than I’m able to understand and cover on my own, and the FDA doesn’t even have a firm grasp on what’s going on.

Hopefully, my all-over-the-place synopsis has been somewhat helpful to you if you’re trying to understand what’s going on, and can help you continue your own research.

Honestly , it’s devastating that our dogs depend on us to make all of their food choices for them, but we can’t quite depend on anyone to give us the whole picture.

All we can do now is work on continually improving the quality of our dog’s diets. We need to provide as much of their nutrients from real, whole food sources as we can.

For more information, visit

Lindsay Pevny
Lindsay Pevny lives to help pet parents make the very best choices for their pets by providing actionable, science-based training and care tips and insightful pet product reviews.

She also uses her pet copywriting business to make sure the best pet products and services get found online through catchy copy and fun, informative blog posts. She also provides product description writing services for ecommerce companies.

As a dog mom to Matilda and Cow, she spends most of her days taking long walks and practicing new tricks, and most nights trying to make the best of a very modest portion of her bed.

You'll also find her baking bread and making homemade pizza, laughing, painting and shopping.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Thursday 4th of July 2019

They love the cooked much better Lindsay. But I have 4 dogs, one of them being a big dog so it's way too expensive to feed them just the fresh cooked food. So I give them half cooked and half kibble. I also heard the kibble was better for their teeth (don't know if that's true),


Thursday 4th of July 2019

I actually do feed my dogs one of the brands on the list (Fromm's) but I do supplement with fresh/frozen delivery food (Ollie's and The Farmer's Dog-we alternate between these two) so I hope that will be enough to keep my babies healthy.

Lindsay Pevny

Thursday 4th of July 2019

It sounds like your pups are getting everything they need! Do they like cooked or kibble better, or do they enjoy both equally?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.