Let’s Talk Taurine for Dogs — Grain-Free Diets, Supplements and More

Let’s talk about taurine for dogs — what does taurine have to do with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)? Should you stop feeding your dog a grain-free diet? Do you need a taurine supplement for your dog?

A family and a dog at the vet.
A family and a dog at the vet. Photography ©BraunS | Getty Images.

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.

What’s the concern around taurine for dogs?

Foods with taurine — Meat, eggs and seafood are the richest sources of taurine. Sorry, vegetable lovers, but taurine is not found in plant foods.
Foods with taurine — Meat, eggs and seafood are the richest sources of taurine. Sorry, vegetable lovers, but taurine is not found in plant foods. Photography ©robynmac | Getty Images.

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.

Let’s back up — what is taurine?

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.

More about taurine for dogs and DCM

Irish Wolfhounds, Dobermans, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Boxers and Saint Bernards are breeds that are most susceptible to DCM.
Irish Wolfhounds, Dobermans, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Boxers and Saint Bernards are breeds that are most susceptible to DCM. Photography ©Silense | Getty Images.

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.

The benefits of taurine for dogs

  1. Defends the liver against oxidation from free radicals
  2. Fights obesity
  3. Helps control diabetes and its complications
  4. Improves the body’s immune response
  5. Promotes reproductive health
  6. Protects the retinas and vision
  7. Reduces seizure symptoms
  8. Strengthens the heart muscle
  9. Supports healthy vascular function

Are grain-free diets causing low levels of taurine for dogs?

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.”

If grain-free diets aren’t the issue, what could be?

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 …

  1. Dietary chemicals
  2. Dog’s ability to process nutrients
  3. Dog’s health status
  4. Dog’s ability to synthesize and metabolize taurine
  5. Fiber content of diet
  6. Genetic predisposition
  7. Ingredient processing
  8. Interaction of ingredients
  9. Overall nutritional composition of diet
  10. Protein content of diet

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.

Should you supplement taurine for dogs?

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.

Understanding taurine for dogs in plant-based diets

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.

The bottom line on taurine for dogs

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.

• A Broken Heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients.

• Dogs Fed Some Popular Diets Could Be at Risk of Heart Disease.

• Nutritionally-mediated DCM

• Diet-Associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs: What Do We Know?

Thumbnail: Photography ©BraunS | Getty Images.

About the author

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!

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19 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Taurine for Dogs — Grain-Free Diets, Supplements and More”

  1. Pingback: What You Need to Know about Taurine in Dog Food

  2. Pingback: Vegan Dogs are a Thing!Doggone Healthy Choices

  3. EVERY dog was on a grain free diet years ago and dogs seemed to live a lot longer with fresh balanced diets. The more we discover and learn the more confusing it gets. I’m on the side of common sense and a natural balanced diet or as good as I can provide! But, being a breeder of show dogs, I know a lot of people are breeding with dogs that should never be bred with with genetic issues but do so because their conformation is excellent or they are out to make money.. and have them running around in the back yard..

  4. Our Corgi battled skin allergies and hair loss for years and we tried all kind of skin products. Recently changed to Grain Free and all her hair has come back.
    Now what do you do about that when grain free truly worked.

  5. Pingback: Why Do We Need Grains In Our Diet

  6. Having read this I believed it was very enlightening. I appreciate
    you spending some time and energy to put this information together.
    I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and
    posting comments. But so what, iit was still worthwhile!

  7. Mentioning beet pulp seems like a diversion from the facts. Beet pulp has been used successfully for decades. The point, as with any fiber, is that the formulators need to know how the ingredients interact and especially what the outcome is in the dog’s body… including protein absorption. High meat diets by the way also often lead to high bile taurine loss

    The problem with BEG diets is they are produced by companies that have little to no expertise on their nutrition team and don’t do much research. They had no idea what the outcome would be when they increased the legumes in their diets.

    As for “Meat, eggs and seafood are the richest sources of taurine. It is not found in plant foods” well yes but why not mention methionine and cysteine? Those are the amino acids dogs normally use to make taurine. Those come from meat but also grains (variably depending which grain) can be a good source of methionine and cysteins. So using grains as PART of a balanced diet maybe was a pretty good idea. It was definitely a good idea as compared to jumping on a trend of foods without much research behind them.

    Oh and testing for cysteine and methionine ? It’s used in research but I don’t know that anyone has good normal ranges for a random sample. I wouldn’t advise my clients to spend the money on that. If on a boutique brand or grainfree diet: get a taurine test and an echocardiogram. And change diets. There is no proven benefit to grain-free diets. They were produced because consumers thought the ingredients sounded appealing.

    1. Dr thanks- I have a healthy large mix breed who does well on blue. She is 7 and healthy good weight etc. just at the vet and inquired as to her opinion about heart issues and food and she mentioned the some food manufacturers actually test Uptake of Taurine vs what they add to the food. She mentioned some of the higher end Science and Putin’s formulas. I didn’t catch entity that is cited that does and verifies the uptake. Hope I have this right. Can you help clarify – appreciate it

  8. I have been giving my 13 1/2 old white GSD taurine as an anti-seizure supplement for about 8 years. I guess we are ahead of the game- her heart is very healthy. She still does short hikes with me!

    1. Please enlighten me to what GSD taurine. Our sweet Golden has seizures and looking to supplement his diet. Thank you.

  9. Fact or fiction??? When I was growing up – many, many, moons ago, we threw a can of Kal Can on the table and watched them wolf it down. They chewed on steak bones, ate ice cream and my sheltie lived until the age of 15 when we put him down because of severe arthritis. Four years ago I lost a sheltie due to cancer and renal failure from Rimadyl. Sustaining that dog so she had a good quality of life cost somewhere around $30,000.00. We did at home sub cutaneous fluid management and she received Adequan injections (ca ching, ca ching.) Zoie died when she was 10 years young – she was a trooper – my vet actually cried when he put Zoie down, so did everyone in the room.

    I now have Cooper, another sheltie who is so high maintenance. I feed him Blue Diamond but now wonder whether I should go back to putting Kal Can on the table???

      1. My dog was just diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy …she is 11 …enlarged heart…collapsed on iur walk….been feeding her grain free Acana chicken blend all her life…..I am now switching foods……I had no idea legumes were bad for them….now trying to source a safe food for her. I hope I’m not too late.

        1. Put your dog on taurine, 500mg per 40lbs. Plus switch diet to low sodium Purina Pro Plan or Science Diet. My girl was diagnosed CHF on March 29 this year. Was told to switch her diet to one that is a long-standing reputable dogfood company and to give her 1000mg taurine with full B complex vitamins and omega-3 salmon oil with vitamin E added daily along with her meds. The cardiologist told me that it will take 5 to 6 months to see results. But in cases that she has seen, the taurine can either greatly slow down the failing heart condition or reverse it and help make the dog’s heart stronger again. I hope this helps. I have recently found out that Hawthorne and ginger work great at strengthening the heart too. Tomorrow I’m contacting my cardiologist to see if I can start my girl on them. Please feel free to contact me if you like. As I am going through the same thing as you. And I clearly understand the devastated feeling this disease makes a pet owner feel. My email address is (regina2728lf@ymail.com )

  10. I’ve fed grain free plus raw for over 8 years. My dogs get meat with every meal, taurine from the source. I add fiber (flaxseed meal and fine shred coconut) as well and they are all at the perfect weight and healthy. My oldest (11) who was diagnosed with mild SAS hasn’t had a detectable murmur in 3 years and does everything the puppy does. Many dogs are on grain free diets these days, it’s not that big a coincidence.

  11. Pingback: Let’s Talk Taurine for Dogs — Grain-Free Diets, Supplements and More – therightpuppy.com

  12. Your advice is dangerous. Continuing to feed a BEG diet at this time is not prudent. The number of cases increases daily.

  13. Pingback: Let's Talk Taurine for Dogs — Grain-Free Diets, Supplements and More – Dogster.com – Worry Free Health

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