Why Taurine Should Be Added to Grain-Free Pet Food

By: Watson Team on Jul 2, 2019

Last year, scientists made a connection between a rare disease that had begun showing up in dogs—taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy—and grain-free dog foods. But unlike cats, for example, dogs can synthesize their own taurine. So what’s going on here? Learn why veterinarians are calling for manufacturers to fortify their dog foods with taurine and why taurine is so essential for pets.

FDA Issues Warning About Certain Pet Foods

In July of 2018, the FDA alerted the public about a correlation between dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs and “foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients.”1Many of these dog foods rich in legumes or potatoes were labeled grain-free. Diet change and taurine supplementation were found to improve the condition in most of the dogs affected by this outbreak.

Dog food in a wooden spoon.

No Dietary Minimum Set for Taurine

Since dogs can synthesize taurine (from the amino acids methionine and cysteine), no minimum requirement for taurine has been set for dog food by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. However, the amount of taurine a dog can synthesize depends on the dog’s size, breed, diet, health, and possibly even age and sex. 

Sources of Taurine

Meats, especially organ meats, provide a rich source of taurine. A pet food that excludes meat will be very low in taurine unless it’s been fortified. Strategies to ensure sufficient taurine in dog food include adding organ meats/animal byproducts, the taurine precursors methionine or cysteine, or taurine itself. Fortifying with taurine is the most reliable way to ensure a specific taurine concentration target is met.Taurine.

How Taurine Functions in the Body

While taurine is sometimes referred to as an amino acid, it’s actually an amino sulfonic acid. Taurine is not used to build proteins but instead mediates a variety of processes in the body, mostly intracellularly. High concentrations of taurine are found in the heart, brain, spinal cord, retina, and skeletal muscles. 

The most important functions of taurine include:

  • Regulating cell volume and osmotic pressure
  • Modulating calcium signaling
  • Conjugation of bile acids
  • Cell development in the brain and retina

Taurine Deficiency

Due to the far-reaching effects of taurine in the body, a deficiency can produce a variety of symptoms in dogs, such as fainting, weakness, panting, abdominal pain, or blood in the urine. An untreated taurine deficiency can lead to heart disease and retinal degeneration.

Explaining the Link Between Grain-Free Food and Taurine Deficiency

In a recent article in the Journal of Animal Science, researchers reviewed possible causes of the DCM outbreak and noted that some dog food formulas in the market today may have legume concentrations exceeding 40%—a concentration far higher than what has previously been tested in dog food.2

While maintaining that legumes are nutritionally valuable, the researchers outlined potential issues with formulating at such high legume concentrations without the addition of meat, methionine, or taurine. High-legume dog foods may be associated with:

  • Low levels of taurine compared with meat-based formulas
  • Low levels of methionine compared with meat- or grain-based formulas
  • Increased taurine excretion or degradation resulting from their high fiber content
  • The presence of antinutritional factors that can reduce protein digestion and nutrient absorption
  • An improper balance of amino acids

Woman hugging her dog.

Formulate the Right Way With Taurine

As science marches on, we will continue to learn more about nutrition—perhaps why some dogs are more susceptible to taurine deficiency than others and what constitutes the ideal diet for dogs. Until then, it’s important to use smart formulation strategies to ensure the nutrient needs of all dogs are met. Adding taurine to your meat-free, grain-free product line is easy with a custom nutrient premix and the right thing to do.

Click to learn about adding a Custom Nutrient Premix to your pet foods—for vitamins, minerals, taurine, and more!

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1. FDA. (2018). FDA In Brief: FDA investigates cases of canine heart disease potentially linked to diet. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-brief/fda-brief-fda-investigates-cases-canine-heart-disease-potentially-linked-diet

2. Mansilla, W., Marinangeli, C., Ekenstedt, K., Larsen, J., Aldrich, G., Columbus, D., et al. (2019). Special topic: The association between pulse ingredients and canine dilated cardiomyopathy: addressing the knowledge gaps before establishing causation. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/jas/sky488