When the FDA announced an investigation into grain free diets and an uptick in canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), it left many of us asking questions like “does ORIJEN cause DCM?” Among the most popular brands listed included ORIJEN’s sister brand, Acana, and Taste of the Wild.
The FDA flagged 16 brands as problematic, and of these, Acana was first, Taste of the Wild third, and ORIJEN only 12th. In this article, we only look at ORIJEN, Acana, and Taste of the Wild as a test sample to give us some clues as to how diets may lead to heart disease in dogs.
Although the FDA investigation led to nothing conclusive, it created much vitriol and hysteria in the dog food world. Unfortunately, it seems the whole thing was swept under the rug, leaving more questions than answers.
So let’s look at what could be happening, and whether foods like ORIJEN cause DCM or may at least contribute to it. Let’s start by looking at what we know causes DCM in dogs.
Note; this article is not to demonize ORIJEN, Taste of Wild, or Acana. Neither are these the only brands implicated in the DCM scandal. This is simply to explore the complexities of diet-related DCM for dogs and to further the discussion of the matter.
Does ORIJEN cause DCM? Known Causes and Contributors To DCM in Dogs
When it comes to whether a brand such as ORIJEN causes DCM, we need to first understand what causes DCM in dogs in the first place.
Canine dilated cardiomyopathy is a heart disease where the chambers of the heart become enlarged. The larger the heart becomes, the less pressure there is to effectively pump blood. The heart valves can also leak, causing fluids in the lung and abdomen. Often there aren’t many visible symptoms until the condition has become quite advanced.
But What Causes DCM In Dogs?
Generally DCM is hereditary, although factors such as infections and diet definitely play a role.For instance, American lines of Spaniels, Boxers, and Doberman Pinschers tend to much more prone to the problem than European bloodlines.
However, in terms of diet, two critical nutrients; namely, taurine and L-carnitine, seem to be key for heart health and deficiencies of either of these can cause DCM.
Neither taurine nor L-carnitine are viewed as essential in the canine diet because dogs can synthesize them in their bodies by using essential amino acids. Specifically, dogs can use cysteine and methionine to create taurine, and lysine & methionine to create L-carnitine.
This is one way that dogs are different from cats, as cats cannot create taurine for themselves and need it in their diets.
But it’s important to remember that a dog needs methionine to create both carnitine and taurine. This is critical to getting to the bottom of whether grain-free brands such as ORIJEN cause DCM.
In all, the key nutrients to focus on are:
So let’s look at some of the factors involved. Firstly, DCM is more common in larger breeds.
Why is this?
Well one factor may be that larger breeds need more taurine than smaller breeds. In fact, many large breed dogs may be struggling to synthesize enough from their diets alone if they are only getting the essential building blocks for taurine and L-carnitine rather than the completed compounds.
This is particularly true if the food contains too many plant-based proteins that have incomplete amino acid profiles. In particular, plant proteins don’t have either taurine or L-carnitine, and tend to be low in lysine.
This is something that has mostly not been addressed in the pet food industry. It is also a very good reason to always look for added taurine and L-carnitine in your commercial dog food, just as a precaution.
Secondly, specific breeds appear to be more prone to either a taurine deficiency or an L-carnitine deficiency. So:
Dog breeds most often reported to have DCM related to a taurine deficiency include:
- Cocker Spaniels,
- Portuguese Water Dogs,
- Golden Retrievers,
- English Setters,
- Alaskan Malamutes,
- and Scottish Terriers.
Dogs prone to L-carnitine deficiencies that lead to DCM include:
- Boxer Dogs,
- Doberman Pinschers,
- Great Danes,
- Irish Wolfhounds.
For more about what to feed Boxers, you can see this article:
In general, large and giant breeds are most at risk, but when DCM is present in atypical sizes, such as the Cocker Spaniel, or the Scottish Terrier, it could indicate a genetic difficulty in creating taurine.
But while there is definitely a genetic component, we can’t deny that diet-related deficiencies in taurine and L-carnitine are a risk factor. So let’s look at the dog foods that are the subject of this article.
Does ORIJEN cause DCM?
The answer to whether ORIJEN causes DCM is a complex one. Since ORIJEN, Taste of the Wild, Acana, and other brands have been quick to add taurine to their recipes, they are now less likely to cause DCM. However, the fact that they were linked to DCM in the first place leaves room for an intriguing deep dive into the many factors that may have been involved.
Let’s begin with the ingredients that researchers have linked to deficiencies and why they may be a problem.
Does ORIJEN cause DCM: Pet Food Ingredients and DCM
In the 2019 DCM scandal, the fact that grain-free diets such as ORIJEN, Acana, and Taste of the Wild used legumes, pulses, and potatoes, became the subject of scrutiny. It seemed that the one common factor was a tendency to use ingredients such as peas, pea protein concentrates, beans, chickpeas, lentils, and potatoes instead of grains.
Speculation as to why these ingredients correlate with more cases of DCM ran wild. Perhaps it was the fiber that blocked absorption? Perhaps it was because grain-free diets typically aimed for high levels of protein in their food, but animal proteins are expensive. So it was cheaper to artificially boost the crude total protein in the food with plant proteins. Afterall, peas, beans, and lentils are high in protein.
However, they have an incomplete amino acid profile, so this practice might have left many grain-free diets with high levels of protein, but critically low levels of vital nutrients. Peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans are low in methionine, albeit unusually high in lysine for a plant source.
We should also note that plant sources of methionine also have low bioavailability. That is, it is not easy for a dog to absorb it and use it in plant protein form.
Note that grain-free diets also typically limit any animal by-products. Taurine is highest in animal tissues, especially the white blood cells, heart, and brain. Ironically, these are present in animal by-product meals. So a commitment to using high quality muscle meat only may actually be lowering the amount of taurine available in the food.
Eventually, although research proved nothing conclusive, the consensus seemed to be that these ingredients were fine and healthy, so long as manufacturers only used them in moderation.
However, these ingredients were not the first to be implicated in diet-related DCM. And this is where it gets interesting.
Other Pet Food Ingredients linked to DCM
In the past, rice bran, rice, lamb and lamb meal recipes have also been linked to DCM. Here we begin to see how complicated the matter really is. Although on closer inspection, we can begin to see why.
- Lamb is notably low in taurine and the cysteine in lamb is not as bioavailable as it is in other red meats.
- Researchers speculate that the fiber in rice bran increases gut motility. This means it could move food through the gut so fast that a lot of taurine is lost in the bile before it can be reabsorbed. This means high-fiber diets may be a problem.
- Another possibility is that soluble fibers and prebiotics, like pectin, do such a good job of feeding the good bacteria in the gut, that they break down the taurine before the dog can use them. Indeed, mixed fibers like beet pulp have seemed to interfere with taurine absorption too.
The idea of limiting soluble fibers for bigger dogs is not a new one. It’s not that soluble fiber is bad for them, but rather that they have a larger digestive tract that has different dietary needs than smaller dogs.
At this point, we can note that another common health food added to boutique diets is flaxseed. Flaxseed is high in both soluble fiber and phytic acid, which we will discuss further below.
The link between fiber and taurine deficiency is consistent with grain-free diets like ORIJEN. After all, legumes and pulses contain high levels of fermentable oligosaccharides. These may interfere with taurine absorption. So fiber may definitely form part of the puzzle of why grain-free brands such as Orijen cause DCM.
Does ORIJEN Cause DCM? A Closer Look At Protein Sources
One of the first suspect areas of grain-free foods was the possibility that they were using large amounts of plant proteins to bulk up the crude protein of the food. Grain-free foods like ORIJEN, Acana, Taste of the Wild and others are marketed as “biologically appropriate”. Part of this image is very high levels of protein. In fact, typical ORIJEN food contains about 38% crude protein.
Critics were quick to point out that much of this high-protein content was likely from plant sources, like peas, beans, and lentils.
While there is a lot of merit to this hypothesis with many grain-free diets, it is more puzzling with ORIJEN. The first ingredients up until the salt line in ORIJEN Original Grain Free High Protein Fresh & Raw Animal are:
- Deboned chicken,
- deboned turkey,
- atlantic flounder,
- whole eggs,
- whole atlantic mackerel,
- chicken liver,
- turkey liver,
- chicken heart,
- turkey heart,
- whole atlantic herring,
- dehydrated chicken,
- dehydrated turkey,
- dehydrated mackerel,
- dehydrated chicken liver,
- dehydrated egg,
- whole red lentils,
- whole pinto beans,
- chicken fat,
- whole green lentils,
- whole navy beans,
- whole chickpeas,
- lentil fiber,
- natural chicken flavor,
- whole peas,
- pollock oil,
- pea starch,
- chicken heart,
- whole pumpkin,
- whole butternut squash,
- collard greens,
- whole apples,
- whole pears,
- whole cranberries,
- dried kelp,
These are the first meat sources that are high in taurine, methionine, lysine, cystine, and L-carnitine. And, the sheer amount of meat ingredients, all listed first on the ingredients logically must outweigh the plant proteins present. So, this is one point for why ORIJEN, at least with its current recipes, should not logically cause DCM.
However, note that further down the list we do start to see legumes and pulses. This is still worth noting, especially for dogs that are predisposed to carnitine or taurine deficiencies.
Let ‘s compare this with the first ingredients of a Taste of the Wild food:
Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
Taste of the wild has much better protein level of 32%, but the first ingredients are:
- Water Buffalo,
- Lamb Meal,
- Chicken Meal,
- Sweet Potatoes,
- Chicken Fat (Preserved With Mixed Tocopherols),
- Egg Product,
- Roasted Bison,
- Roasted Venison,
- Natural Flavor,
- Tomato Pomace,
- Potato Protein,
- Pea Protein,
- Ocean Fish Meal
From this we can gather that unlike ORIJEN, Taste of the Wild uses far more ingredients linked to DCM, such as lamb,sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, and their proteins. This is probably one reason that added taurine was more critical for the Taste of the Wild Recipe. It also begins to shape a picture of why Taste of the Wild was third on the FDA list, while ORIJEN was 12th.
But what about ingredients in Acana linked to DCM? After all, they come from the same company as ORIJEN.
Let's look at the first ingredients of an Acana grain-free recipe.
ACANA Red Meat Recipe Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
Acana is also a more reasonable and safe 29% crude protein. This is a good protein level for most dogs that do not have health complications. But the ingredient up until the salt line are far more problematic in this recipe:
- Deboned Pork,
- Beef Meal,
- Whole Red Lentils,
- Whole Pinto Beans,
- Whole Green Peas,
- Pork Meal,
- Beef Fat,
- Whole Green Lentils,
- Whole Chickpeas,
- Whole Yellow Peas,
- Deboned Lamb,
- Fish Oil,
- Lentil Fiber,
- Natural Pork Flavor,
- Pea Starch,
- Beef Tripe,
- Beef Liver,
- Beef Kidney,
- Pork Liver,
- Pork Kidney,
Firstly, neither beef or pork are good staple protein sources. Pork specifically is correlated with more gastrointestinal problems and issues such as pancreatitis that may interfere with taurine absorption. Beef and pork are both high in saturated fat (note the beef fat), which can cause inflammation of the gut and leaky gut syndrome. There is also a correlation between red meat-based diets and increased incidences of cancer in dogs.
But in terms of DCM, the point to note are the high levels of lentils, chickpeas, and beans. Based on this alone, it appears ORIJEN is far better for heart health then either Acana or Taste of the Wild. And this could well be a clue as to why of the sixteen brands the FDA originally flagged, Acana had the most cases.
But this is far from the whole story. There are another two points that researchers tend to overlook when it comes to why grain-free diets may cause DCM.
Food processing and DCM
One overlooked possibility with DCM is that food processing is decreasing that natural amount of L-carnitine and taurine in the food.
This could explain why meat that is usually very high in taurine, such as turkey and fish, are also linked to taurine deficiencies. Ingredients such as lamb and lamb meal make sense, as lamb is unusually low in taurine and the cysteine in lamb is not particularly bioavailable to dogs or cats.
One common misconception is that processing does not influence taurine and L-carnitine levels, when in fact, it very much does. Let’s look at how processing and heat treatment affect the key nutrients involved in DCM
Firstly, since taurine isn’t seen as essential for dogs, most studies on taurine bioavailability center on cats. However, it is still worth noting that:
- Compared to frozen diets, heat-processed diets showed lower plasma levels of taurine in cats.
- Processing fish and seafood can lead to the loss of up to 100% of the taurine. Soaking seafood in brine, mincing, and even washing all decrease the amount of taurine.
When it comes to L-carnitine, the interesting point is that only pan-frying appears to affect the amount of carnitine in the meat. However, when meat is boiled, a large portion of the carnitine escapes into the water. This is relevant to all commercial dog foods as boiling meat for extended periods is a standard part of the meat rendering process.
Also, we know that lysine is particularly sensitive to heat treatment and that it is easy to overestimate how much lysine is actually bioavailable when food is analyzed.
When it comes to hydrolyzed proteins, such as those typically found in hypoallergenic and limited ingredient diets, the amount of methionine can be compromised. You can read more about hypoallergenic diets here.
Amino acids such as L-methionine also degrade in storage, meaning that the longer the food sits on the shelf, the more it degrades.
Since Taste of the Wild and Acana are both processed dry kibble, it’s reasonable to assume that processing may play a role in diet-related DCM. ORIJEN has a wider range of freeze dried and raw-positioned food, including freeze-dried coatings. Arguably, this may decrease the degree to which taurine and L-carnitine are compromised and help prevent DCM.
But there is one final aspect of the diet-related DCM discussion in dogs that we may be overlooking, and that is phytates.
Does Orijen cause DCM? Phytates in grain-free food
Phytates may be a much overlooked cause of DCM. In general, studies find too much phosphorus in dog foods, which has its own health implications. But phosphorus from animal sources like meat and bone meals are extremely bioavailable. A dog can easily absorb them.
However, when phosphorus comes from a plant, it is bound with inositol and phytic acid, or phytates. In this form, it is an antinutrient in that it interferes with the absorption of critical nutrients such as calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron. Low levels of magnesium are a particular cause for concern as it is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Phytate also interferes with the absorption of protein, or makes protein less digestible.
In fact, phytates chelate with amino acids, specifically methionine. And as we know, a dog needs methionine to create both L-carnitine and taurine.
So what plant ingredients are highest in phytates?
Phytates are most concentrated in the seed coating (bran) and it is also specifically connected to the protein in the plant. This means the phytate levels are in whole grains such as oats and rice, and in cereal by-products that contain the bran, such as wheat middlings or rice bran.
This may explain the link between ingredients such as rice bran and barley, and taurine deficiencies. It also gives us insight into why lamb and rice diets specifically were linked to DCM in the past.
However, processed grains are much lower in phytates, and quite naturally high in methionine. This is possibly why, until 2019, taurine-deficiencies in grain diets were not that common in foods with cereal grains.
But when it comes to phytates, legumes and pulses are right behind grains. What’s more, they’re generally much lower in methionine. And the final nail in the coffin is that grain-free diets tend to use the protein part of legumes and pulses, as in pea protein concentrate. This is also the part that is most connected to high phytate levels.
Potatoes too, are quite low in methionine, and have a degree of phytates. Phytates are present in other root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, another staple of grain-free diets. In addition, potatoes tend to maintain their phytates even after processing.
So let’s look at the problematic ingredients in ORIJEN and other brands that may cause DCM:
So to recap, what does all this mean for grain-free foods like ORIJEN, Acana, and Taste of the Wild? Let’s sum it up in 7 key points.
- Of the foods originally listed in the FDA investigation, ORIJEN is one of the least likely foods currently to cause DCM. Acana and Taste of the Wild’s grain-free foods are possibly more problematic.
- On the whole, all brands have dealt with the matter simply by adding taurine to their recipes and calling it a day.
- Fiber may be related to low taurine absorption, especially in large dogs.
- Using excessive plant proteins to bolster the crude protein in the food can rob a dog of vital amino acids and compounds.
- Certain ingredients may definitely cause or be related to DCM. These include legumes, pulses, potatoes, rice bran, and lamb-based diets.
- Processing and heat treatments may lower taurine and L-carnitine in the food.
- Finally, antinutrients in plant ingredients such as phytates may be more problematic in the pet food industry than we realize.