Since July 2018, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that the agency was investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain grain-free foods, many pet owners have become concerned about the ingredients in the diets they’re feeding their pets. Conflicting news reports and social media posts – some based on fact but mixed with fiction and a dose of fear – have not helped clarify the issue for consumers. As a result, many pet owners are turning to their veterinarians and trusted retailers for advice on selecting the most appropriate and safe foods for their pets.
Since 1993, Dr. Linda Atkins has cared for pets as a general practitioner at Valley Cottage Animal Hospital, the hospital that she co-owns in Valley Cottage, New York. She said when news reports first starting appearing on local and regional news channels, her practice fielded many calls from concerned dog owners.
“Our clients were very concerned because many of them were on grain-free foods,” she said. “They had questions about the disease – Dilated Cardiomyopathy – what it was and what symptoms their dogs might have if they had it. Many clients whose pets were on the brands of foods listed by FDA wanted to know our hospital’s recommendations for what foods they should switch to. Some clients wanted echocardiograms performed to make sure their dogs were okay and had no sign of the disease.”
Dr. Helen Stehouwer has practiced veterinary medicine for more than 10 years and is the practice owner of Parkwood Animal Hospital in Friendswood, Texas, a suburb of Houston. She noted that headlines may have brought DCM to the forefront in recent years, but concerns about the issue of diet-induced DCM is not new to veterinary medicine.
“Dilated Cardiomyopathy has been studied in cats and dogs extensively since the late ’70s,” Stehouwer explained. “Taurine-deficient DCM has been noted since the late ’90s in large breed dogs and is not completely understood. It’s much more complicated than just taurine levels in formulated foods. For example, the synthesis, bioavailability, enterohepatic recycling, urinary loss, altered metabolism, and intestinal microbes all in addition to breed variations play a significant role.”
Kristina Pierce, manager of the Pet Barn in Annapolis, Maryland, said she and her staff have also been fielding more questions from customers, especially after consulting with their veterinarians.
“We’ve definitely had a surge in customers coming in with this concern after visiting their vet,” she said. “We always do our best to educate our customers using logic and reason.”
Atkins, Stehouwer and Pierce all noted that a key factor in making informed decisions about a pet’s diet is for pet parents, veterinarians and retailers to remain up-to-date and educated on pet nutrition and to get that education from reputable sources.
As a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), Atkins noted she receives regular up-to-date information about recalls and recommendations from the associations’ nutrition panels to help her guide clients toward right food for their pets. Stehouwer added that she makes a point to only read science-based studies and articles, adding that The American College of Veterinary Nutrition, which consists of a panel of veterinarians who are board certified specialists in veterinary nutrition, is a great resource for veterinarians, retailers, and pet owners. She said their website includes information on nutritional guidelines, continuing education opportunities, and FAQs about the latest issues and trends in pet nutrition.
Both veterinarians also advised everyone involved in the care and nutrition of pets to look to the science, not the hype, for guidance. Stehouwer has found that social media has had a strong, negative impact in driving fear and confusion for dog owners.
“The concern I have found from clients is often social media driven information based on myths or fads, fear-based and often slandering specific pet food brands,” she explained. “The information is speculation or scientifically unsubstantiated targeting the emotion of pet owners.”
Pierce said she and her team follow several sources on Facebook such as Truth about Pet Food, Dr. Karen Becker and Rodney Habib, founder of Planet Paws, a pet health page on Facebook followed by more than 3.5 million people. She said they also look to industry and non-industry news sources to round out their research.
“Ultimately, pet food marketing has outpaced and outreached the science and, as a result, owners are not always making healthy, science-based decisions,” Stehouwer said. “Importantly, although there appears to be an association between DCM and feeding ‘BEG’ (boutique, exotic and grain-free food), vegetarian, vegan or home-prepared diets in dogs, a cause-and-effect relationship has not been definitively proven.”
According to Stehouwer, pet food companies that work with Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and other PhD-level veterinary nutritionists and also follow those experts’ recommendations on formulation, manufacturing and post-production testing are less likely to be involved with the most recent DCM outbreak, no matter if their diets are grain-free or contain exotic ingredients.
Atkins claims there is cause for concern regarding the dietary link between certain food ingredients and DCM. Her hospital makes several recommendations for pet parents concerned about their pets and DCM.
“We recommend if the pet was on a brand of food listed by the FDA, that taurine levels are checked to make sure the dog is not low in taurine, as low taurine has been linked to DCM in dogs on grain-free diets,” she said. “We also recommend an echocardiogram for breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Dobermans and other at-risk large breed dogs, as well as dogs with heart murmur detected on physical examination. We also recommend a diet that is not completely grain-free, and advise clients to avoid the foods on the FDA published list of flagged foods.”
Finally, her practice advises clients to look for diets that have AAFCO label as nutritionally balanced for the life stage of the pet, or better yet, an AAFCO Feeding Trials label, meaning the food has been fed to dogs and those dogs were found to be healthy and not nutritionally deficient.
“We do not agree with the concern at all,” Pierce said. “Given the recent statement from FDA and the release from Journal of Animal Science, we feel confident in never being concerned.”
She added that she’s been able to assuage many of her customers’ fears, but for those who were still concerned, she and her staff have been able to identify alternative foods that made them feel more comfortable.
On a final note, the FDA issued an update on its investigation in September 2020. In the FDA report, the veterinary laboratory network that the FDA had partnered with for the investigation examined approximately 150 dogs diagnosed with DCM, and the results showed that DCM is a multifactorial issue with potential variables, which can include breed, age, weight, infection and other factors.