Grain-free dog food could be hazardous

New FDA investigation prompts WSU researchers to collect diet, heart data



Pamela Lee, assistant professor of cardiology, discusses connections between diet and heart health in dogs at WSU Veterinarian Teaching Hospital on Tuesday.

CHERYL AARNIO, Evergreen reporter

The FDA started an official investigation to see if there is a connection between DCM and grain-free dog food. Data from WSU sent to the FDA will be pooled with other data nationwide.

Cardiologists at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine will send results to the FDA if they find evidence that a dog has dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease, related to its diet.

DCM is a condition in which the heart does not pump out blood as vigorously as it should. This causes the lungs to fill with fluid and can be fatal, said Dr. Pamela Lee, veterinarian and assistant professor of cardiology.

Once dogs have fluid in their lungs from DCM, they typically only live six to 12 months, Nelson said.

The disease can cause dogs to have a hard time catching their breath and may cause them to be weak, she said.

Nelson said she recommends owners visit a veterinarian if their dog shows symptoms because it could be a heart disease, but not necessarily DCM.

However, Lee said, many dogs do not show symptoms until the complications are life-threatening.

Usually, only older dogs get DCM because it is genetically inherited, Nelson said. Certain breeds, like Doberman pinschers, Golden Retrievers or Great Danes, have a tendency to acquire it.

There have been more cases where DCM is caused by a dog’s diet, she said. Some breeds in which dogs are more likely to inherit the disease are getting DCM earlier, too.

“If what we’re feeding is low in certain nutrients, then heart disease can develop, and that’s what we have been noticing with the grain-free diets,” Nelson said. “Our suspicion is [the dogs] have a malnourishment of sorts.”

One issue they suspect is a lack of taurine, an amino acid, but there may be additional amino acids that cause DCM, she said.

Boutique diets, dog food which is considered trendy and made by newer brands, such as the grain-free, gluten-free or vegetarian dog foods have become popular, Nelson said.

Before the diet is put on the market, these brands do not necessarily conduct feeding trials, which is when dogs try out the food beforehand to make sure it is a healthy diet for their consumption, she said.

The number of cases of dogs that acquire DCM has increased in the last 10 years which is also when boutique diets emerged, Nelson said.

She said that it is unknown whether the issue stems from the fact that necessary nutrients are not being absorbed from the food or whether the nutrients are not in the food.

Legumes, Nelson said, have a reputation for preventing absorption of amino acids, yet many of these boutique food companies use legumes, like lentils or chickpeas in the food, which means high-legume diets can also be a problem.

Lee said DCM caused by nutritional issues can be reversed in certain cases. When DCM is caused by genetics, it cannot be reversed but medication can slow down the disease.

She said when dogs come in with heart problems related to DCM, WSU cardiologists determine what the dog has been eating and see if there is any correlation between the diet and the disease.

“For example, if you have a lot of dogs who have poor pump function of the heart, and you see 100 of those dogs, and 20 of them are eating this one diet, it would argue that maybe this diet is problematic,” Lee said.

However, some dogs do have medical conditions, like severe allergies, that require them to eat a grain-free or high-legume diet. If that is the case, Lee said she recommends buying a dog food made by a brand that has conducted feeding trials.

Certain companies have a good reputation for their feeding trials and nutritional research, Lee said. They also have veterinarians and nutritionists help create the dog food.

There are many brands on the market known for these practices, like Hill’s, Royal Canin and Purina, she said.

“People should try to ignore the bells and the whistles and the shininess of a pet food and really just look at the research and the facts from a pet food,” Lee said.