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Cocker Spaniel eating

The essentials

  • Taurine is an amino acid — It’s the key ingredient in bile that lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, helping pets maintain a healthy heart.
  • Dogs can make taurine by eating foods that contain the amino acids — Meat, fish, and eggs contain high concentrations of amino acids.
  • A taurine deficiency in dogs causes many health issues — These include heart disease, retinal disease, and cystinuria, a metabolic disorder.

Amino acids are essential to dogs and cats

Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life. According to the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University , “Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Dogs and cats need a certain amount of protein every day, but they also need adequate amounts of each amino acid in the correct proportions to each other to use them most efficiently.”

Dogs and cats can use amino acids from plant and animal proteins. Experts at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center say that animal proteins usually have a better combination of amino acids than plants.

What's taurine and why do dogs need it?

Taurine is an amino acid that assists in a dog’s eye health and immune system functions. It contains sulfur, which is a key component in bile. Most importantly, taurine is concentrated in the heart muscle to help it work properly. Amino acids in our pets work the same way they do in humans.

Dogs can make taurine by eating foods with the amino acids methionine and cysteine. These amino acids are found in high concentrations in meat, fish, and eggs. They’re also found in small quantities in plants.

👉 Fun fact: Taurine is a necessary nutrient in cat food but not in dog food. Cats can’t make taurine from their food like dogs.

Top health issues caused by taurine deficiencies

A taurine deficiency can cause a heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and other serious health issues.

  • Heart disease. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a heart disease. It makes a dog’s heart muscle stretches significantly causing the heart to become enlarged and unable to pump blood properly. This condition is often fatal.
  • Retinal disease. If your vet finds that your dog has retinal damage, the blood-taurine concentrations should be evaluated.
  • Cystinuria. A taurine deficiency may also cause cysteine stones and crystals in your dog’s urine, as they may have an issue metabolizing amino acids.

Dog breeds prone to taurine deficiency

Experts believe certain breeds are unable to make taurine to meet their needs. Studies show that when these breeds of dogs developed DCM, their heart conditions were reversible when supplemented with high doses of taurine. These dog breeds are predisposed to taurine deficiency:

Certain diets have a link to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)

Taurine is a word that frequently pops up in the ongoing research about grain-free diets and DCM in dogs. We felt it was important to include the most recent research and explain why taurine is mentioned.

Here’s what we know so far

Some dog breeds like Newfoundlands developed taurine deficiency when they were fed a commercial diet containing lamb and rice. A few other dogs on a vegan or vegetarian diet developed a taurine deficiency which led to heart disease. Recently, certain grain-free diets were found to cause some dogs to develop DCM as well.

There’s still research being done on these various diets to determine what’s causing heart disease in certain dogs. Some of these diets didn’t contain taurine. So it’s possible that a taurine deficiency may have been the cause of the heart disease.

Yet, most dogs with DCM don’t have a taurine deficiency when their blood is tested. So taurine isn’t likely the cause of several grain-free diets causing DCM in dogs.

There’s also discussion that these diets contain a moderate amount of peas and legumes which may be a factor in the development of DCM. We’ll update this article as research develops on the topic.

What the experts are saying

According to the Tufts Veterinary School, “For the vast majority of dogs, we do not yet know what is causing this disease. There are definitely some dogs with DCM that have low taurine levels, many of which will improve with taurine supplementation and change of diet. For dogs that have normal taurine levels, however, other nutritional deficiencies may be present.”

Experts from Tufts Veterinary School also note, “Some nutritional deficiencies can affect the heart’s normal function, so an insufficient amount of these nutrients (or reduced bioavailability) in the diet could cause heart disease. Diet-associated DCM could also be due to an ingredient in the food that is toxic to the heart. ”

The FDA and many other researchers are still actively studying this issue so they can give pet parents and veterinarians a more definitive answer.

DCM symptoms for dog owners 

Any pet owner of one of the breeds mentioned should pay close attention to their dog’s health and behavioral issues. DCM symptoms may look like a number of diseases — You should take your pet to the vet immediately if your dog experiences any of these:

  • Weakness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Pale gums
  • Increased heart rate
  • Fainting
  • Exercise intolerance or lethargy
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing

These breeds have a connection to DCM

DCM isn’t limited to specific dog breeds. In fact, any dog can develop DCM. Large and giant breed dogs are more at risk but small breed dogs can develop this form of heart disease. Recently, studies have found a connection between DCM and these breeds of dogs:

Pet parents need to look for reputable dog food formulas

Until more is known, boarded veterinary cardiologists are recommending that dogs be fed a diet that contains grain, especially if peas or legumes are within the top five ingredients. Also, it’s advised to feed dogs a diet that has been formulated by a boarded veterinary nutritionist, made by a reputable company, and on the market for a long period of time. Top dog food brands include Royal Canin, Science Diet, and Purina.

However, if pet owners are reluctant to change their dog’s diet and are concerned about DCM, consult with your local veterinarian about running a blood test called proBNP. Our veterinary advisor, Dr. Michelle Diener, DVM shares, “This test checks heart function. If it comes back elevated, then this suggests that heart disease is present and is affecting the function of the heart. It’s important your dog’s diet is well balanced and contains all the necessary vitamins and minerals that a dog needs to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Does your dog need a taurine supplement?

Your vet will decide if your dog needs a taurine supplement by running a blood test to check for taurine deficiency. If your dog is deficient in taurine and has heart disease, then a taurine supplement should be given to see if the heart condition improves or resolves with time. Your vet will advise you on the supplement that’s needed and the appropriate dose.

Frequently asked questions

What does taurine do for dogs?

It can help treat DCM in some dogs who have a deficiency in this amino acid.

Is taurine bad for dogs?

No taurine isn’t harmful to dogs.

How do I know if my dog needs taurine?

If your dog has DCM and is diagnosed with a taurine deficiency via a blood test.

Should taurine be added to dog food?

There’s no requirement currently. But many diets that were formulated by boarded veterinary nutritionists do contain taurine.

How much taurine should be in dog food?

Pet owners need their vet to provide advice and counsel around whether to supplement their dog’s diet with taurine as it is often not necessary. Many dog foods already contain taurine, which will be listed in the ingredient section if the diet does contain this amino acid.