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For humans, peas are wholesome, nutritious vegetables packed with vitamins and minerals, rich in fiber and protein. But are they healthy options to include in dog food?

Are Peas Good for Dogs?

Used as a snack or a small part of your dog’s regular diet, snow peas, sugar snap peas, and garden (or English) peas are not harmful in tiny amounts. In fact, they may even be of value; for example, peas contain antioxidants that are good for skin, heart, and eye health.

But dogs, unlike humans, may not benefit from a diet primarily comprised of vegetables like peas. Peas in their pods are part of the legume family, and the edible seed from a legume plant is called a pulse. When removed from the pod, a pea is a pulse, just like beans and lentils. Commercial pet foods have included legumes and pulses like peas in their ingredients for many years with no evidence of dangerous side effects. In recent years, however, researchers have been examining whether or not peas as a main ingredient in dog food can be linked to heart disease.

What Causes DCM?

The second most common heart disease in dogs is called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). A disease of the heart muscle, DCM also occurs in humans. Veterinarians find that DCM occurs more frequently in certain large and giant breeds, for example Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, and Great Danes. However, new research appears to indicate that non-hereditary forms of DCM can occur in dogs as the result of a combination of factors like genetics, underlying medical conditions, and possibly diet.

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Recent research has centered on the possible connection between diet and DCM in dogs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received more than 1,100 cases of diagnosed dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs from all 50 U.S. states between January 2014 and July 2020.

One of the FDA’s jobs is to ensure that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and serve an appropriate function. Most of the diets of the dogs diagnosed with non-hereditary DCM had legume seed ingredients (or “pulses”) high in their ingredient lists, and 90 percent of the diets were labeled grain-free. Many grain-free diets use pulse ingredients in a greater proportion.

Are Peas Linked to DCM?

Researchers at Tufts University Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory analyzed nine diets associated with canine DCM that contained pulses and/or potatoes or sweet potatoes as main ingredients. A report published in 2021 stated, “While we cannot establish with certainty if any of these compounds and ingredients are causal for disease, the findings support peas as a leading possible ingredient with diet-associated DCM in dogs.”

Drawing a direct cause-effect relationship between peas as a major ingredient in grain-free diets and DCM is complicated for several reasons. For example:

  • Most of the ingredients in canine grain-free diets are also found in human diets and are not harmful to humans. But dogs often eat these ingredients in even higher quantities; in fact, most dogs eat a single commercial pet food, rather than a mix of different kinds of foods like people do. Are peas always dangerous or just in large quantities?
  • The peas and/or other legumes used in large quantities as a source of proteins may interfere with the absorption of amino acids. Is DCM related to the lack of amino acids?
  • Vitamin levels were lower in the diets containing high levels of peas or other legumes. The FDA reports that diets with insufficient nutrients, for example B vitamins, can impact cardiac metabolism, and nutrient levels were lower in diets loaded with peas and other pulse ingredients. Is the problem that peas are replacing other ingredients dogs require to stay healthy?

What Should a Dog Owner Consider?

Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, notes that every dog is unique and will have different nutritional requirements. Therefore, an owner’s best course of action is to discuss their dog’s diet and food options with a veterinarian. “In addition, it’s important to discuss any change in diet you are considering with your vet prior to making that change,” says Dr. Klein.

Two 8 week old Golden Retriever puppies eating kibble from a bowl while laying on a hardwood floor.
© 2010 Charles Mann, All Rights Reserved

If your dog has already eaten a food with peas as a primary ingredient, you may also want to consult your veterinarian. Your dog may not exhibit any health issues right now, but if symptoms occur such as coughing, tiring easily, or difficulty breathing during exercise, these may be symptoms of larger issues.

Your veterinarian will probably thoroughly examine your dog and auscult your dog’s chest (listen, often through a stethoscope) to see if there is a heart murmur or arrhythmia; they may also take a radiograph of the heart and lungs. If your veterinarian feels that further tests, such as an echocardiograph, are needed, they may refer you to a veterinary cardiologist.

The earlier a diagnosis of DCM is made, the better the chance for some type of recovery. The good news is that some of the dogs who were diagnosed with diet-associated DCM in early stages have been able to make a recovery and live longer with a change in diet and standard medical treatment.

Related article: Soy in Dog Food: What You Need to Know
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