The Food and Drug Administration investigates a possible link between certain “grain-free” commercial dog foods and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease that can result in heart failure. Considering the high standards in food production, this has come as a surprise to many dog owners and the dog food brands as well. Although some deny any controversy regarding their food ingredients and the corresponding influence they might have on a dog’s health, the FDA investigation made everyone research their own recipes and question whether they were doing everything in the right way.
But how did this link that no one ever noticed come to the attention of the FDA? If you’re feeding your dog with grain-free food, should you panic?
What Is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?
Canine Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a heart disease in which the heart has a decreased ability to pump blood through the vascular system. This disease most often occurs in giant breeds such as Doberman Pinscher and the Great Dane, but there are some small breeds such as Cocker Spaniels that are found to be prone to DCM.
The prognosis for dogs affected by DCM varies a lot. While in Cocker Spaniels, this disease can have a relatively slow progression, in Great Danes it can become fatal quite quickly. Although this disease can be managed through a proper medical therapy that can improve the quality of life in affected dogs as well as their lifespan, the issue lies in the disease’s symptoms.
Often, dog owners are not aware of the disease’s symptoms (lethargy, weakness, shortness of breath) only until the late stage of the DCM. This makes the prognosis in the lifespan of affected dogs much more severe and leaves the owners preoccupied.
Why Is This Disease Linked To Some Dog Food Brands?
But where does this disease come from? How does it form in canines? Apparently, Canine dilated cardiomyopathy is caused by multiple factors: genetic, infectious and nutritional factors. It was found that dietary carnitine deficiency also leads to the development of DCM.
Since veterinarians were used to seeing this disease typically in large and giant breeds, having a large number of smaller breeds such as springer spaniels or beagles affected by this disease in 2017 stuck out as quite unusual. This is when the scientific veterinary community got interested in investigating the cause of the disease.
While investigating the one thing that connected all affected dogs, one thing caught the eye of Gelzer and her colleagues: grain-free dog foods in which grains were most commonly replaced with lentils, peas, and chickpeas.
In fact, the investigation researches 560 cases of dogs affected with DCM. The research showed that out of those 560 dogs, an incredible percent of 91 consumed grain-free foods, while 93% of dogs that are involved in the investigation were fed with a recipe that contained peas and lentils.
What also leaves veterinarians wondering is how come grain-free diet became so popular lately since it was never supported as a healthier diet alternative by science. The hypothesis is that dog owners were simply assuming that a grain-free diet would be a healthier one, following the new trend and the discovery of gluten sensitivities in humans.
However, all dog owners should know that there is no scientific reason for going without grain when it comes to dogs. Dogs can develop food allergies, but when they do, it is usually to a protein, and not to grains. Therefore, it will be wiser to switch to a different protein source diet than including a grain-free one.
Dr. Anna Gelzer, the veterinary cardiologist and an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, states that it’s still unclear what causes the nutritional imbalance in these dogs. However, it is still unknown whether the diet change in the early stages of the disease would improve the state of the affected dogs’ heart or not. Therefore, FDA is still only investigating in order to find out the real cause behind the increase in this disease.
What Kind Of Dog Food Is Linked To DCA?
The research on the cause of a raise in dogs affected by DCM has started earlier on 8, when FDA warned about the food based on peas, lentils or potatoes in a July 2018 statement. However, last week was the first time FDA actually released the 16 brand names that were found to be linked to canine dilated cardiomyopathy.
The 16 brands linked to DCM are ordered by the number of cases linked to them:
- Taste of the Wild
- Earthborn Holistic
- Blue Buffalo
- Nature’s Domain
- California Natural
- Natural Balance
- Nature’s Variety
- Rachael Ray Nutrish
The research revealed that most of the reported cases were associated with dry dog food recipes, but several raw food and wet foods were included as well.
Although the investigation might have discovered an important cause of the potentially fatal canine disease, the FDA is not suggesting dog owners to change their pets’ diets.
Lindsay Haake, the FDA spokesperson, said, “We’re not saying don’t use these brands, we’re just telling pet owners to work directly with their veterinarians because we’re still investigating.”
On the other hand, veterinary cardiologists stated for NBC News that they are not waiting for the definitive statement of the FDA on these dog foods, but are advising dog owners to switch to a non-grain-free diet, if the affected dog has been previously on a grain-free diet. Dr. Gelzer also added that “There’s no scientifically proven benefit to grain-free foods, so why take a chance?”
Although the probability of grain-free diet causing the DCM is quite high, it is still uncertain whether that is the only factor influencing the development of the heart disease, or if it has a multifactorial cause. The Pet Food Institute, that has pet food and treats members from the U.S., said that this is a complex issue that requires further scientific evaluation. The PFI has been aware of the FDA’s 2018 statement and has been working to understand whether the relationship between dilated cardiomyopathy and diet exists with a group of nutritionists, veterinarians and product safety specialists.
The FDA statement proves that new, untested health trends and self-lead experiments in both human and animal nutrition can be highly risky with an unpredictable health outcome. It teaches us an important lesson that before jumping to decisions and actions based on poorly researched topics it is better to consult a medical professional that will know to tell you whether your nutritional needs are adequately met.
Just like you shouldn’t stop eating grains if previously not advised by a doctor, you shouldn’t exclude potentially relevant nutrients from your dog’s diet either before a veterinarian recommends it. Until the whole situation clears out, it’s better if you simply keep your dog’s diet non-grain-free, especially if you own a Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane or another giant dog breed that is more susceptible to developing dilated cardiomyopathy.
If you are feeding your dog with a grain-free dog food recipe, than it might be wise to switch to a new one that doesn’t contain peas, lentils or potatoes. This way, you will stay on the safe side until the investigation is over and the final statement from FDA is released.