English Setters, Taurine, and Dilated Cardiomyopathy

I’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries regarding the news about reports of possible diet related Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). The reports are pretty scary and people are justifiably wondering what they should do. So, I’ve spent some time reading up on it.

Useful Info

First, here is a veterinarian oriented paper on the subject that I found to be informative. It mentions a number a variables that complicate determining what, if anything, is wrong.

These are recent releases from the FDA. If you just want a quick read that tells you a lot, go through the questions and answers.
FDA June Update
Vet-LIRN Investigation
FDA Questions and Answers

Download all of the reports:

This article covers a number of things pretty well.  1472_001-1
Thanks to Sue for sending this.

I consider Monica Segal to be an especially knowledgeable and rational person in regards to dog nutrition and diet formulation.
Don’t Panic – Thoughts on the FDA Report re DCM

Whole Dog Journal has some good tips about reading dog food labels and picking a formula. The commentary near the end regarding the way the news has been presented is worth pointing out.
Please Don’t Panic About the Grain-Free Thing

My Reactions

I think the sentiment that there is no need to panic just yet is correct. There is “a potential increase in cases of DCM in dogs not genetically predisposed”, and an “apparent” link between certain types of dog food, but nothing is conclusive at this point.

To put this in perspective, out of the estimated 77 million pet dogs in the US there are currently 515 suspected cases of diet related DCM reported, or 0.0006688%. Roughly one case per 150,000 dogs. Not all of these cases have been proven to be diet related, so the real number is likely less than 515.

Worst case this could be the tip of an iceberg, but at this point there isn’t enough data to determine if that’s the case, and there are too many variables in what they do have to draw any definitive conclusions. Hopefully the FDA will find some answers before too long. In the mean time the safe approach is to assume the increase is real, and that it has something to do with kibble formulas.

I think it’s the Legumes

There are good reasons to suspect that legumes could be causing problems. 93% of the reported foods contain them. Legumes have not been used in significant quantities for very long, they have high levels of anti-nutrients that aren’t neutralized in the kibble making process, and the protein is deficient in multiple amino acids. Plus the amount used has increased recently in order to address a high ash problem in meat meals- meals were reduced and legumes increased. Our dog food supplier has been warning me about the use of legumes for the last several years, and he is not at all surprised to see a rise in DCM.

I could be wrong, but I am skeptical that potatoes and some of the other so-called “exotic” ingredients are a problem. Some may be, but potatoes and tapioca for instance have been used for 20+ years with no issues, including no problems with the earlier grain-free foods that relied heavily on them.

Whole potatoes don’t provide much protein, so companies can’t substitute them for animal ingredients and still claim high protein levels like they’re doing with legumes. Legumes also happen to be far less expensive, especially compared to sweet potatoes, which cost more than meat meals.

Out of curiosity I searched through the FDA reported cases for “potato” and then looked at the ingredients for each food mentioned. This search only reinforced my doubts. With very few exceptions all of the foods that contain potatoes have legumes as a primary ingredient, usually more than the potatoes, and many of those are also low in animal protein. I only found 2 straight up formulas that use potatoes as the main starch. There are also 2 reported that have only tiny amounts of potato in them, and 4 that have extremely low or zero animal protein (2 are vegetarian). I question why they are even looking at potatoes.

Diet Recommendations

I am not a nutritionist, so keep that in mind. I am a breeder who is interested in nutrition and cares about it’s effects on the dogs. In a nutshell here is what I am going to do, and recommend, until the FDA figures out what is going on.

  • Don’t feed foods that are heavy in legumes.
  • Do feed formulas that have plenty of animal protein in them.
  • I doubt potatoes or grains matter at all, but if it makes you more comfortable limit potatoes and don’t feed grain-free.

One option is to simply use a food that doesn’t have any legumes in it, and no potatoes if you prefer. However, if you are currently using a food you like that does have some legumes, or are considering changing to a different food, here are details on how I read the labels and judge foods. Labels are not perfect or even trustworthy, but they will give you a general idea of what’s in a food.

First, do not rely on the name or the claims on the bag- very often these have little to do with what’s actually in the food.

A rough guide for determining whether an ingredient constitutes a large portion of a food is whether it is listed before or after the added fat, and whether there are multiple ingredients of the same type. The primary ingredients are listed before the first major fat source. Ingredients listed after the added fat are generally minor portions of a formula, as long as there aren’t multiples. Pea starch is used as a binder and is less of a concern than whole legumes, protein powders, or flours.

The FDA highlighted the cases of two Dobermans living in the same house that were diagnosed with diet responsive DCM. Both were eating a formula from the most commonly reported brand. Here are the main ingredients.

  • Deboned chicken, deboned turkey, chicken meal, whole green peas, whole red lentils, whole pinto beans, chicken liver, chicken fat, catfish meal, chickpeas, whole green lentils, whole yellow peas, lentil fiber, eggs, pollock oil…

Ingredients in pet foods are listed by weight before cooking. I crossed out the wet ingredients because once the water is cooked out of them it’s unlikely there will be enough dry weight left to qualify as primary ingredients.

Chicken meal is the heaviest dry ingredient, but to be listed first all it has to be is slightly heavier than the next ingredient. 3 out of the 4 heaviest ingredients are legumes, and there are also 4 more legumes after the chicken fat that if added together might constitute another primary ingredient. This food should be presumed to be predominantly legumes, not poultry. A very large percentage of the foods reported to the FDA were like this or worse.

Here are the primary ingredients of formulas from the next four brands with the highest number of reports:

  • Kangaroo, Kangaroo Meal, Peas, Chickpeas, Pea Flour, Sunflower Oil…
  • Beef, lentils, tomato pomace, sunflower oil…
  • Turkey, turkey meal, garbanzo beans, lentils, peas, potatoes, pea flour, chicken fat…
  • Turkey Meal, Chicken Meal, Peas, Dried Egg, Pea Starch, Chicken Fat…

Another thing you could do is refer to the the Vet-LIRN study mentioned in the FDA’s press releases as a guide. They are comparing grain-free dogs diagnosed with DCM to healthy grain-fed dogs. The requirement for the grain-fed group is that the foods must contain no more than 2 legume, pulse, or potato (including sweet potato) ingredients that must appear after the animal and grain ingredients.

Grain-free Choices

You’re not going to find a grain-free kibble that doesn’t contain potatoes or other “exotic” starch sources (anything other than certain grains has been labeled exotic). There are however a small number of them out there that eliminate or minimize either legumes or potatoes, sometimes both. A few use tapioca (cassava) or coconut for the main starch.


When considering foods that contain grain (in addition to determining the level of legumes) here are some of the things I consider. I’m not telling you to avoid the ones I avoid, just giving you some ideas to think about.

  • Whole corn (not corn gluten meal) is OK as a starch source if processed correctly so dogs can digest it. It has a bad reputation compared to other grains that isn’t really deserved. There are concerns about glyphosate and other chemicals due to GMO varieties.
  • Rice has arsenic.
  • Millet has some good points, but it is one of the few foods that has goitrogens that aren’t neutralized by cooking (fava beans are worse). Since ES have the highest rate of hypothyroid disease of any breed I avoid this.
  • Gluten grains are anecdotally associated with Hashimoto’s disease, the human equivalent of autoimmune thyroiditis in dogs. Cause and effect is not proven, and extrapolating to dogs is not proper, but I’m doing it anyway. Seems prudent to avoid.
  • Oats avoid the above problems but whole oats don’t seem to work very well in kibbles because of the husk. Rolled oats in a home prepared diet work fine.
  • The kibble we’re using right now has sorghum as the main plant ingredient. Brown rice is in there too, but as a minor ingredient so hopefully not too much arsenic: Chicken Meal, Pork Meal, Grain Sorghum, Chicken Fat (Preserved with Mixed Tocopherols), Brown Rice…

Conventional Kibbles

Many of the Golden Retriever people seem to be jumping to the old style of corn gluten meal, brewer’s rice, or soy based formulas that are endorsed by vet schools. These are highly refined foods made mainly from cheap by-product types of ingredients. They rely more heavily on added vitamins, minerals and amino acids to meet AAFCO guidelines. Here is one that claims to be designed specifically for setters.

  • Brewers rice, chicken by-product meal, chicken fat, soy protein isolate, corn, natural flavors, dried plain beet pulp, fish oil, pea fiber, rice hulls, vegetable oil…

When we switched away from foods with similar ingredients our vet bills went down and we saw improvements in performance and stamina, so I can’t comfortably recommend them for long term use.  However, if you feel safer going that route until any problems with kibble formulations get worked out, these foods are not going to kill your dog or anything.

Home Prepared Foods

I think this can be the healthiest choice, and is undoubtedly the best way to provide dietary taurine. However, I highly recommend against it unless you are willing to spend many hours of research learning how to do it correctly so you don’t cause harm. Or better yet hire someone who does know how to design a diet that meets the individual dog’s nutrient needs.

English Setters and Taurine

So now to what is probably the most important thing I found in all of this. The first paper in the links above mentions English setters as one of the breeds that might be predisposed to taurine deficiency related DCM (the same author has also written this elsewhere). There is no reference to the original source of that information so I can’t comment on how much data there is, but to be cautious it’s probably best to assume there is something to it. And there is no downside to making sure a dog gets enough dietary taurine.

Taurine is not considered essential for dogs because they synthesize it from other amino acids. If setters really are prone to taurine deficient DCM it is because at least some of them don’t synthesize taurine very well.

Poor taurine synthesis has been proposed as one reason why Golden Retrievers are over-represented in the recent reports of DCM. There are reasons to suspect the numbers could just be due to reporting bias for that breed, but it’s also possible Goldens are more sensitive to taurine deficiency in the diet or anything in the food that interferes with taurine. 

Even normal dogs can’t make enough taurine when they are under stress. Traveling, working in the field, hunting, pregnancy and nursing, etc. are all stressful enough to cause this to happen. So, with our hunting setters we may have a double whammy going on here.

The best way to ensure enough dietary taurine is to feed some extra foods that are good sources. It doesn’t seem like the amount of taurine in various foods is very well established, but a couple of sources consistently mentioned are seafood and raw meat. I’ve seen suggestions like giving a can of sardines once a week.

Using a taurine supplement may be worth considering (and possibly L-carnitine, although I have read mixed information on how useful it is). Taurine is available in bulk powders that are affordable. It would not be a big deal to put a little on top of the food on a hunting trip for instance, and it may be beneficial full time with English setters. That’s something I will be considering for our own dogs. A little canned mackerel or sardines every few days wouldn’t be all that difficult either, and you would get the added benefit of some omega 3 fatty acids.

Giving the dogs a reasonable amount of taurine, either through foods or supplements, can’t do any harm and may help prevent DCM. Maybe learning about doing this for our setters will be a side benefit of the grain-free scare.



2018-19 Season Wrap Up

We had a busy summer bringing along our latest batch of pups so we were looking forward to getting out hunting. Unfortunately our Sage Grouse season was cancelled so we missed out on that for the first time in 30 years. A large chunk of prime habitat was burned – kudos to Fish and Game for closing the season. It wasn’t a popular decision.

We took our annual trip to Wisconsin in October despite predictions of low grouse numbers again this year. Numbers of birds were better than last year but still spotty. Unlike last year we shot mostly juveniles, which bodes well for next season. We succeeded in getting our youngsters into a few birds highlighted by Lock showing us our initial impression of his ability was correct. We shot a grouse he didn’t see flush and marked it down, apparently dead. We called Lock over and told him “Dead Bird”.  He looked around and soon headed off away from our mark so we called him back and told him “Dead Bird”. We figured he’s young so he didn’t know to look for the bird where we told him. He again took off, in the same direction, but this time he pointed the bird thirty yards from our mark before we had a chance to call him back. The bird then ran about fifteen yards and hid in a brush pile where he again located and pointed it. The nose knows.

Lisa with Lock and his first Grouse

After our deer and Elk seasons we went to see if Chukar numbers have recovered from the harsh winter of 2016-17. They did. Unfortunately so did numbers of hunters which made them a little spooky/flighty. That isn’t all bad – it makes it a little more challenging for the dogs. Despite the difficulty the pups looked good, following running birds and making a few finds. They didn’t make any solid points but they were learning fast.

Lisa Following Lock
Lisa with Lock Pursuing a Running Covey of Chukars
Lock Roading Chukars
Lock on Point While Roading Chukars. He Still Hadn’t Seen One But Pointed and Followed Instinctively.
Coulter At Sunset
Coulter At Sunset
Cliff With Thistle
Cliff With Thistle

There was snow on the ground which makes climbing hills interesting but it also gives us a huge advantage. We can see where birds have been and we can tell when they’re running ahead of the dog. Without snow it’s much more of a guessing game. Is the dog roading birds or just being overly cautious? With fresh tracks lining out ahead of them it’s obvious what’s going on.

Chukar Tracks
Fresh Chukar Tracks Tell the Story. Lock Followed These Birds to Where They Flushed – Well Out of Sight Ahead of Us.
Sage Grouse Tracks
Just For Kicks – Sage Grouse are Huge.

Couldn’t resist throwing in this short video of Lock’s first Chukar “point”. He still hadn’t seen a Chukar despite having followed a couple coveys that flushed wild so we showed him a freshly shot bird.

We again finished our season in Kansas surrounding the RymanSetters.com gathering and hunt. It was cold and windy for most of the trip and the roads were in terrible condition, making it impossible to get to some covers. Unfortunately we tried…

Tire Chains and Assorted “Headache” Gear
Of Course It Was Dark When We Had To Chain Up

After limping in to camp around midnight it was nice to have a fenced-in, stress free place to let dogs out.

Bird numbers were up from previous years, at least for us, and we had no trouble finding quail. Coveys were big and we had really good hunting. The pups put it all together and the older dogs continued to get better at locating difficult to smell quail. Several hunts produced nice covey finds and multiple points on singles.

Thistle Followed This Rooster More Than 100 Yards and Pointed It – Her First Wild Bird Point…And Retrieve
Lock Pointing On His First Covey Find
Lisa With Bob Mele And Birds Shot Over Lock On His First Quail Hunt
With Friends At RymanSetters.com Gathering/Hunt
 Bob Mele, Lynn Dee Galey and Frank Thompson
Lisa, Bob Mele, and Frank Thompson

Don’t Teach Your Dog To “Hold Point”!

I know, we all want to walk in on solid points to flush and shoot birds. Isn’t that the reason we have pointing dogs? Of course it is. But you don’t get that by teaching the dog to point. You get that by teaching your dog to NOT FLUSH BIRDS. This is a very simple concept that isn’t so simple to explain. Or grasp. If you want your dog to perform to its full potential, YOU can’t tell him when it’s time to stop and point the bird because you don’t know that. You can’t know that. Fortunately your dog does.

October Camas Pointing Woodcock
Camas Pointing Woodcock

How does this concept apply to training your dog to be staunch (hold point)?

First, always give pups a season of actual hunting, or more, before thinking about trying to staunch them up. The reason for this is simple. They aren’t ready for it until they have learned to handle birds. I’m talking about wild birds during actual hunting, not planted birds in a training situation. Until they get too close to a bird and bump it, or flush it on purpose, they can’t know how close they can get away with approaching before they point. This is crucial. Even when pups are out flushing birds, breaking point, etc. they are learning valuable lessons that can’t be taught any other way.

Once they have learned to handle birds we teach them not to flush or chase using training birds. I don’t want to go into detail about how to accomplish this. The point I want to make here is: teach them they’re not allowed to flush birds, transfer that lesson to hunting, and they immediately turn into competent pointing dogs. Understanding they can’t flush the bird is the last piece of the puzzle. They already know how to point birds, relocate if a bird moves, follow running birds for long distances, etc. As soon as they learn to let you flush the bird you will get shots over solid points. It can be hard to get your head around letting go of control but that’s what you have to do if you want top performance from your dog.

Why does this matter?

Whoa-ing a dog when you see that he smells the bird in an effort to teach him to stop and point backfires. He wants to please you but you aren’t making sense to him because you’re telling him to stop before he really has the bird located. You’re confusing him. Keep it up and you’ll get shoddy bird handling demonstrated by flagging tails on point, creeping, or even backing away from birds. By contrast, if you let him decide when he has the bird located, he will point. Solid. No flagging. When the bird runs he’ll know it (flagging now indicates the bird is running) and relocate (he’ll go solid again). No need to release him – he’ll do it on his own.  Over and over until he loses track of the bird (unusual), it flushes wild, or gets pinned. I’ve watched dozens of setters do this (we call it “roading”) on Pheasant, Grouse, Chukar, Huns, Sage Grouse, California Quail, and Sharptails over the past 30 years, often for hundreds of yards, and I honestly can’t remember one bumping a bird in this situation. (Note: by “bump” I mean getting too close by mistake, not intentionally flushing the bird)

River Pointing Woodcock
River Pointing Woodcock

Aren’t dogs supposed to hold point until released?

Field trial rules require dogs to hold point until released, which often leads to a misguided attempt to use this approach for hunting. It may be required for field trials but it provides no advantage when actually hunting. None. Teaching the dog to keep pointing where the bird was five minutes ago will only teach him NOT to follow running birds. If you’ve ever watched a dog “road” a grouse for hundreds of yards and pin it where it runs out of cover you’ll agree this is the pinnacle of bird handling. The most exciting, most challenging, top performance a dog can turn in. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and stop teaching your dogs to hold point until released. Let them do what they’re bred to do and you’ll be glad you did.


There’s one more issue I want to address here. Yelling “whoa” to prevent the dog from moving often results in exactly what you’re trying to avoid – birds flushing out of range. Not because the dog moved. Because your voice spooked the bird. Want to put birds in the air? Yell. The human voice flushes birds almost as reliably as the dog getting too close. I’ve seen it happen dozens (and dozens and dozens) of times. Next time you’re out pay attention when you talk and see if birds fly at the sound of your voice. If you want verification before next season there’s no shortage of videos on Youtube demonstrating my point. Dog points, bird runs as gunners approach, dog tries to follow, handler yells “whoa”, bird flushes immediately. I can’t believe how often you hear something like “WHOA-uh, there they go…” When the dog points your job is to be quiet and get ahead of him to flush the bird. If the bird runs and the dog starts roading, keep walking but don’t say a word. He’s doing his job. Only talk if the dog flushes the bird. Then and only then do you correct the dog using “whoa”.

Iris with grouse
Iris With Grouse

So as we put last season behind us and thoughts turn to getting our dogs tuned up for next season keep this in mind. If you want top performance from your dog, you have to let him decide when to point. Don’t correct him unless he flushes the bird. When you’re  hunting next season, trust him to know when to move and when to stop. Be quiet when he’s on birds (as in don’t flush birds he’s working hard to pin for you). You’re a team. You do your job, let him do his.

Breeders of Classic foot hunting English Setters from Ryman and other close working bloodlines.

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