Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers: What You Need to Know

The incidence of dilated cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers is on the rise.  Could diet be the problem?  Some veterinarians are beginning to think so.  Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing research.

What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy

Dilated cardiomyopathy  (DCM) is a condition caused by a weakening of the heart muscle that leads to poor contraction strength.  Ultimately, both the left and the right chambers of the heart become dilated, with thin walls.  The disease is most often progressive and fatal.

Some breeds have a genetic predisposition to DCM.  Affected breeds include the Doberman Pinscher, Boxer Dogs, American Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Portuguese Water Dogs, mastiffs, and Great Danes.  Other breeds, including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Saint Bernards, Springer Spaniels, English Sheepdogs, Afghan hounds, Scottish Deerhounds, terriers, and English Cocker Spaniels also have a relatively high incidence of the disease.

But genetics isn’t the whole story in some cases.  In the 1990’s, veterinary cardiologists began to connect dietary taurine deficiency with DCM in some breeds.  They found that the disease was linked to diet in some Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, and Golden Retrievers.

What is taurine?

Taurine is an amino acid.  Unlike many amino acids, it is not used by the body to build protein.  Instead, taurine helps regulate the volume of cells, and  it is a component of bile salts. It is necessary for many body functions.  Many animal tissues contain high levels of taurine.  Dogs can make taurine, and it is not considered an essential amino acid for the canine diet.

Dr. Josh Stern, a veterinary cardiologist who studies DCM at the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine thinks that some dogs may have something in their genes that causes them to make less taurine.  In these dogs, diets that are lower in taurine could lead to disease. He is studying blood samples from dogs with and without DCM for clues.

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What diets have been associated with Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers?

Although there are no published studies that link any diets to DCM, Dr. Stern and others have observed an association between some diets and the disease.  These diets include high fiber, lamb and rice meal, and very low protein diets (Morris Animal Foundation, Golden Retriever lifetime study).  Recently, investigators have also linked some grain-free diets, especially those high in legumes such as peas or soy,  to development of DCM.   They speculate that there may be something in legumes that hinders the absorption of taurine.

What should parents of Golden Retrievers do?

Regular veterinary visits and health examinations are essential for any dog.  Make sure you talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s diet.  Your vet may recommend a blood test for dietary taurine levels.  If your dog has signs of dilated cardiomyopathy, your vet may recommend a taurine supplement.  Continue to feed your dog a balanced diet with plenty of protein.

It is important to catch the disease early.  Taurine supplementation will not always be effective in treating the disease.  However, the earlier treatment begins, the better the chances for improvement.

Photo credit: Yvonne Kubo

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