You’re probably already familiar with taurine, even if you don’t realize it. If you’ve ever ordered an alcoholic bevvy mixed with an energy drink, or if you hang with the athletic-performance crowd that drinks supplements, you’re consuming taurine. And if you give your pet single ingredient fish treats, then your pet is already familiar with it too.
Taurine serves a vital role in people and cats and maybe in dogs, but it’s a tricky amino acid to really nail down. For one thing, in people, it’s often added to junky, sugary beverages that might do far more harm than good. For another, it’s developed a mistaken reputation for causing major problems for pups, but more on that in a minute. For now, let’s start with the basics:
First, what is taurine?
Quick overview, courtesy of WebMD: “Taurine is an amino sulfonic acid, but it is often referred to as an amino acid, a chemical that is a required building block of protein. Taurine is found in large amounts in the brain, retina, heart, and blood cells called platelets. The best food sources are meat and fish.”
In other words, taurine might help build some pretty important parts of the body. Studies also show it’s a powerful antioxidant and can even help congestive heart failure. Pretty important stuff, but can taurine benefit our pets, too?
Do pets need taurine?
TL;DR answer: Cats definitely do, and some dogs probably do. But let’s dig into the details…
Why do cats need taurine?
VCA veterinarians explain it best: “Taurine is a type of amino acid, which are the building blocks of all proteins. Taurine is exclusively found in animal-based proteins. It is critical for normal vision, digestion, heart muscle function, to maintain normal pregnancy and fetal development, and to maintain a healthy immune system. Taurine is an essential amino acid in the cat.”
Without it, your cat can experience all kinds of health problems, like impaired vision and heart conditions. The good news is that commercial cat foods provide plenty of taurine to keep your cat healthy. And while lots of cat mamas worry about supplementation, as long as you’re providing your cat a non-vegetarian, formulated cat food, you shouldn’t need to, but if you’re concerned, chat with your vet.
What about dogs and taurine?
Taurine is a BIG DEAL for dogs right now. But… it maybe doesn’t need to be.
It all started when grain-free and boutique diets were implicated in a serious heart condition, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), and one of the first suspicions was taurine deficiency. Here’s the scoop: After checking taurine levels in dogs with DCM, the majority--like, 90 percent--did not have taurine deficiencies. On their page about DCM, Tufts University addresses the link between some breeds, their diet, and taurine deficiencies: “Dogs, unlike cats, are not thought to require taurine in the diet. However, certain breeds (Cocker spaniels, Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, English setters, Labrador and Golden retrievers) may require some in the diet to avoid a deficiency. Lamb and rice diets, very low protein, and high fiber diets in these predisposed breeds may make it more likely for them to develop taurine deficiency. Dogs of these predisposed breeds that develop DCM may have their blood tested for taurine levels. Most dogs with DCM do not have taurine deficiency but when levels are low then taurine supplementation can help in the management of heart failure.”
Ultimately, if you have one of those breeds, or if you feed your dog a diet implicated in these studies--that is, boutique diets, exotic formulas, grain-free, vegetarian, home cooked, or raw--see your vet. Have them check taurine levels in your pup. Then, formulate a plan, if necessary, to switch to a potentially safer diet.
With that said, does your pet need taurine?
Well, for cats, it’s a necessary amino acid. If they don’t have it, they’ll experience severe medical problems that can be life-threatening. For dogs, it’s a bit trickier, but the great news is that nutritional deficiencies in pets are super rare these days because commercial diets are nutritionally balanced.
We always recommend to talk over your food choices with your vet and request a taurine test if you’re concerned.