What You Need to Know about Taurine in Dog Food

Ever since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a potential link between grain-free dog food and a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), there has been confusion about taurine in dog food.

Does grain-free dog food cause taurine deficiency for dogs? Do you need to give your dog a taurine supplement? Do some dog foods have more taurine than others? Is taurine even required in dog food?

We want to be your source for everything dog-related (and especially anything related to dog food), so here’s everything you need to know about taurine for dogs.

What Is Taurine?

While taurine is sometimes referred to as an amino acid, it doesn’t serve as a building block for protein like traditional amino acids. Instead, it’s found abundantly in organs and tissues throughout the body, including the heart, brain, retina, and muscles.

Unlike essential amino acids, humans and dogs can synthesize taurine from the sulfur-containing amino acids cysteine and methionine with the help of vitamin B-6.

Cats and babies can’t make taurine the same way, so they need to get taurine from their food. Dogs don’t necessarily need to get taurine from their diet since they can basically make it themselves from cysteine and methionine. Taurine is a required nutrient in cat food, but not in dog food. Instead, only methionine has a minimum level in dog food.

Taurine is primarily found in meat. That’s why cats are considered obligate carnivores (they must eat meat), while dogs are omnivores and can get by eating a variety of different things.

Regardless of whether an animal consumes taurine or synthesizes it from cysteine and methionine, taurine has may crucial functions, such as regulating electrolytes in cells, producing bile salts required for fat digestion, and balancing neurotransmitters in the brain.

The Connection Between Taurine for Dogs and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a heart condition that some dog breeds are prone to. Large and giant dog breeds like Irish Wolfhounds, Great Danes, Golden Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers are at the highest risk, possibly because large dogs produce taurine at a slower rate than small breeds. Cocker Spaniels, though a smaller dog breed, are also prone to taurine deficiency.

DCM weakens the heart muscle and causes complications like congestive heart failure, which can be fatal.

A few years ago, the FDA started to receive an influx of information about dog breeds developing DCM that were not genetically prone to it. As they began to collect data, some dogs showed low blood levels of taurine, and many of those dogs had been eating grain-free diets. That’s why the FDA felt compelled to make a statement about the possible connection between grain-free food and DCM.

The Benefits of Taurine for Dogs

Taurine has many benefits for dogs, including:

  • Prevents obesity
  • Improves immune response
  • Protects vision and retinas
  • Stronger heart
  • Protects the liver from oxidation by free radicals
  • Helps control diabetes and its complications
  • Good for reproductive health
  • Fewer seizure symptoms
  • Promotes vascular function

Does Grain-Free Food Cause Taurine Deficiency for Dogs?

Just because there seems to be a small correlation between a grain-free diet and taurine deficiency, the FDA is not yet ready to say that one definitively causes the other.

One leading theory is that the potatoes and legumes that often replace grains in grain-free diets may somehow be triggering taurine deficiency. However, there are many theories about the potential link between grain-free foods and DCM. Some other factors to consider include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Dog’s ability to process nutrients
  • How ingredients interact with each other
  • Dog’s health status
  • Diet’s protein content
  • Insufficient cysteine
  • Dog’s ability to metabolize and synthesize taurine
  • Dietary chemicals
  • Diet’s fiber content
  • Ingredient processing
  • Overall nutritional composition of a dog’s diet

One study showed that beet pulp might decrease taurine status in dogs by decreasing protein digestibility. Beet pulp is a common filler ingredient in many dog foods.

Ingredients Most Correlated with DCM in Dogs

DCM might be more about what IS in a dog’s food rather than the fact that it lacks grains. Here are the ingredients most correlated with DCM in dogs:

  • Lamb
  • Bison
  • Duck
  • Salmon
  • Kangaroo
  • Venison
  • Fava beans
  • Barley
  • Chickpeas
  • Potatoes
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Rice/rice bran
  • Tapioca

Could “Ingredient Splitting” Be Part of the Problem?

Your dog’s food may look high in protein, but the bulk of that protein may come from non-meat ingredients like chickpeas and lentils. If meat is the first ingredient in your dog’s food, then that’s the most prominent ingredient by weight.

However, when you combine up to 5 different non-meat protein ingredients, suddenly, most of the protein in your dog’s food is coming from non-meat sources. Some dog foods may have up to 5 different legumes adding protein to the diet. When combined with meats that don’t contain as much taurine, that could be a recipe for disaster.

Again, though, no studies have proven what, if any, connection exists between grain-free food and DCM.

Does Your Dog Need a Taurine Supplement?

If you’re concerned about your dog’s taurine levels, don’t just automatically add a supplement. You should talk to a vet about testing your dog’s blood to check their levels of taurine, cysteine, and methionine.

If your dog has low levels, then they may need a taurine supplement. However, there is not enough evidence to recommend that all dog owners start supplementing their dog’s diet with taurine.

In fact, one study showed no correlation between taurine deficiency and DCM in Irish Wolfhounds.

Taurine and Plant-Based Dog Food

If you’re a vegan and want to feed your dog a vegan diet, then you do want to make sure that the food contains taurine, or that you give a supplement. Taurine comes primarily from meat and may be lacking in a vegan dog food.

Final Thoughts on Taurine in Dog Food

Right now, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that dogs shouldn’t eat grain-free food. In fact, some dogs are allergic to grains and require a grain-free diet. If you still have questions, ask your vet whether a grain-free diet is appropriate for your dog to avoid DCM caused by a taurine deficiency.

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