FDA, DCM and Grain-free Diets

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) launched a study one year ago investigating dogs diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) that were considered atypical breeds (different than the breeds listed.) Certain breeds of dogs, such as Great Danes, Dobermans, Portuguese Water Dogs, Irish Wolfhounds, Standard/Giant Schnauzers and Newfoundlands have been found to have a genetic predisposition to the disease. Recently the FDA reported its findings of what they know to date.

What we know

There are an estimated 77 million dogs in the United States.

DCM has been reported in dogs and cats years prior to this report. Common causes are genetic, however infectious disease (viral, bacterial and parasitic), heavy metal toxicity, chemotherapy drugs, obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders can cause DCM.

There are 560 reported dog cases of DCM and 14 cat cases in the FDA investigation. This represents 0.0007% of the total dog population in the United States.

There is no central reporting agency for ANY dog or cat illness. No illness, whether heart disease, cancer or skin issues have ever been tracked or reported. We do not know the prevalence of DCM prior to this investigation.

Dogs ate grain-free and grain-containing diets; most ate grain-free in the FDA investigation. It is not known if the amount of grain-free diets fed represents a market share (meaning more dogs eat grain-free in general so it may not represent a correlation.)

Some of these dogs in the FDA report were dogs that have had DCM reported in the breed as indicated above.

Some of the dogs in the report also had other diseases besides DCM, for example, some were positive for heartworm disease. Heartworm disease can cause DCM.

Some dogs came from the same household and were related.

The 77-page complaint report contained dogs and cats diagnosed with DCM. Some of the dogs were NOT diagnosed with an echocardiogram, which is the standard of care to diagnose DCM. Some of the information owners filled out and veterinarians filled out some reports. Objective information is difficult to discern given owners presented material and veterinary professionals did as well. Complete histories were not included.

Legumes (peas, chickpeas) and potatoes seem to be over represented as common main ingredients.

Some dogs had low taurine levels, some did not; some dogs responded to taurine supplementation, others did not. Low taurine has been associated with DCM.

The FDA has made no recommendations since starting the investigation over one year ago.

My findings and experience

I have recommended grain-free diets since 2005 (14 years.) While practicing I have diagnosed 4 cases of DCM in 21 years of seeing medical cases. Of these 4 cases, one was a Doberman (known genetic risk), one was a Great Dane (known genetic risk), two were Golden retrievers (considered to be a new genetic risk given the over-representation in the FDA investigation.) In the whole scheme of health risks for dogs, this study is very small and DCM is relatively uncommon in the general population. In scientific analysis and study, 0.0007% is not statically significant. To put it into perspective over 50% of American dogs are overweight. Obesity also causes DCM.

Processed food is considered to have less nutritional value than whole fresh food. Poor nutrition in people is a contributing factor to DCM in humans. Let’s face it, ANY dog food in a can, bag or bulk container is processed in some way. It is not the most nutritious food. The most nutritious food is fresh, however, most of us do not cook or prepare food for ourselves. Are we going to do it for our pets? I recommend adding in fresh cooked meat, like turkey, chicken, beef or fish with each meal in addition to fresh vegetables. For cats, only add meat. I do recommend raw meat feeding IF it comes from a SAFE commercial handler of raw meat like Primal Pet foods. Please do not feed grocery store meat raw. It contains bacteria levels, which are considered safe, only if cooked. Cooked grocery store meat is safe.

I believe I have “fixed” more medical problems with grain-free diets than I have with grain-containing diets. Many grains cause issues in our pets including skin, ear and anal gland problems. By removing grains, we remove itchiness and discomfort for many pets. I am a huge supporter that food is medicine and by modifying diets, we can fix many diseases. Perhaps the biggest disease is obesity affecting over 50% of our dogs. Grain-free food, when fed properly, helps dogs to lose weight, and weight loss fixes many problems.

Some of the dog foods in the investigation are over-represented like Zignature and Acana pet foods. These pet foods do contain peas as a protein source. Peas provide a great deal of protein but provide protein from a plant source, not a meat source. Not all protein sources are considered equal. Specific amino acids are found in meats and are not found in plants. One is taurine. Taurine is found in highest levels in shellfish, dark meat turkey and dark meat chicken. Diets with a high pea or chickpea content will add protein but not essential amino acids your dog may need. This is why a vegetarian diet is not recommended for your dog. Adding in fresh cooked dark meat turkey will add taurine to your dog’s diet daily.

UC Davis published a report in 2003 of dogs eating lamb and rice food that had low taurine levels and hypothesized it caused DCM. These dogs were also supplemented with taurine. This is not a new problem, but the news is making it seem that way. Remember to keep this in perspective: I diagnose more heartworm disease than I do DCM, but the FDA isn’t investigating heartworm disease. In general, consumers can prevent more heart disease by giving heartworm prevention monthly than changing a diet.

Determining what causes DCM in the dog is very complicated. So far only grain-free diets have been implicated. One important observation is that ALL but one or two of these diets were processed (one or two were homemade.) As a veterinarian I must recommend what I think is best for my patients: natural fresh food is best. If you cannot cook for your pet daily (which most of us can’t) then second best is anything in moderation. Try adding in fresh cooked meat and vegetables daily to the processed kibble or canned food. I have owned six dogs in my adult lifetime. ALL ate a combination of grain-free, home-cooked, and commercially prepared raw diets. One dog lived to 20 years, another until 14; my current dogs are 14, 8,7, and 6 years of age. None, at this time or at the time of death, had or have heart disease. I also have 4000 dogs in my practice, most eating grain-free; none, at this time, have DCM.

Please know that the findings in the FDA investigation may not be “new” information, it is just being reported now. As pet owners become more attached, connected, and concerned about pets, it brings light to issues. This is important. Over the past 20 years, veterinary medicine and the pet industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Pet consumers are becoming more savvy and spending more on their pets. It is entirely possible that dogs were dying of DCM 20 years ago but they were not receiving a diagnosis.

My Recommendations

The FDA has not made any formal recommendations. They recommend you speak with your veterinarian.

If you are concerned, a veterinarian should examine your dog. Request chest x-rays and an echocardiogram be performed to rule-out DCM. Keep in mind; if your dog is not one of the breeds listed above, it will have a very low chance of developing DCM.

Researchers at UC Davis do believe that Golden Retrievers may have a genetic predilection to DCM and taurine deficiency. If you own a Golden, whose parents have DCM, it is important to get a baseline echocardiogram and cardiac workup for your dog.

At this time, I do not recommend switching your dog off of grain-free food if your dog is doing well. I do recommend adding in fresh meat (cooked) and vegetables daily to add fresh protein, vitamins, and minerals. I do recommend rotating diets to give your dog a variety of foods. Rotating meat and vegetables is also important. I do recommend seeing your veterinarian on a routine basis to have your dog examined to pick up on any disease. Exercise and keeping your dog lean also contributes to a healthy pet.