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Piecing Together the Facts: Canine Heart Disease, Pet Food Recalls, and So-called BEG Diets

Pet parents have been deluged over the past few years with one recall after another for such things as excessive levels of vitamin D and the presence of heavy metals, pentobarbital, salmonella, listeria, and more in commercial pet food. (See the full list of FDA pet food recalls here).

As if that isn’t enough to confuse caretakers, something called DCM has been making headlines. DCM stands for dilated cardiomyopathy. It is very serious and can cause heart failure and sometimes death in dogs and cats. Although cases of canine DCM have increased over the past few years, the precise cause for this increase is not known. Theories abound — the most common of which is that “grain-free” food is to blame.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis (UCDavis) are currently studying the issue. The FDA study includes multiple breeds of dogs and cats while the UC Davis study is focused on Golden Retrievers.

Preliminary results from both studies demonstrate that over 90% of dogs (and some cats) with DCM were consuming dry, grain-free foods that might have limited their ability to process taurine, an amino sulfonic acid (often referred to as an amino acid), a chemical that is a required building block of protein.

There is a lot of emotion and finger pointing surrounding this issue throughout the pet food industry and among pet caretakers. It has come to our attention that customers are receiving emails/letters from their veterinarians warning them not to feed grain-free foods but instead return to “safer” foods such as Hill’s (despite numerous varieties under recall; see link above), Purina ProPlan, Iams/Eukanuba, and Royal Canin.

With this post, we hope to update our readers on the facts to date and answer the following questions:

  • What is DCM?
  • Why is DCM a concern?
  • What are the preliminary results of the two ongoing studies?
  • What is the association with grain-free foods?
  • What are BEG foods?
  • Should you stop feeding grain-free pet food?
  • Where does Paul’s Custom Pet Food fall in this discussion?
  • What should a pet parent do?

We invite you to take the time to read this post and to familiarize yourself with the science. We have provided links to the studies we refer to below.

What is DCM?

According to the FDA, canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease of a dog’s heart muscle and results in an enlarged heart. As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump, and heart valves may leak, which can lead to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen (congestive heart failure). If caught early, heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification.

Why is this a concern now?

Between January 1, 2014, and November 30, 2018, the FDA received 300 reports of diagnosed dilated cardiomyopathy. Some of these cases involved more than one animal from the same household. In the reported cases, there were 325 individual dogs diagnosed with DCM and 74 of those dogs died. There were 10 individual cats, two of which died. The agency received additional reports of cardiac symptoms in dogs, however, the reports did not include a confirmed DCM diagnosis.

What is the association with grain-free dog foods?

The FDA initiated an investigation of a potential dietary link between DCM and dogs eating certain pet foods containing legumes like peas or lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), or potatoes as main ingredients. It began investigating after FDA‘s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) received a number of reports of DCM in dogs eating these diets. DCM itself is not considered rare in dogs, but these reports are unusual because many of the reported cases occurred in breeds of dogs not typically genetically prone to the disease.

What are the preliminary results of the two ongoing studies?

According to a FDA update published in February of 2019, “at this time, it is not clear what it is about these diets that may be connected to DCM in dogs. There are multiple possible causes of DCM. Taurine deficiency is well-documented as a potential cause of DCM, but it is not the only cause of DCM. Nutritional makeup of the main ingredients or how dogs process them, main ingredient sourcing, processing, amount used, or other factors could be involved.”

Here is the FDA chart depicting the breakdown of foods dogs with DCM in its study consumed.

(Note: Unlike UCDavis below, the FDA has not released the brands of food consumed by dogs with DCM, just the type of foods. We will update this post once those brand names are released.)

Here is a chart from UCDavis demonstrating the dry foods consumed by Golden Retrievers with DCM.

What is it about legumes and pulses that might be of concern?

According to the FDA, the proportion of legumes and/or pulses has increased in certain diets, including many labeled as “grain-free” or “zero-grain.” These ingredients appear as main ingredients in grain-free commercial food, especially dry foods, often replacing meat. Legumes are included in canine diets as a source of carbohydrate, protein, and fiber.

Legumes are part of the Fabaceae plant family and are the fruit or seed of these plants. Common legumes include peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and peanuts. Pulses are dry edible seeds of certain legume plants. Examples include dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas, and lentils. Not all legumes are pulses, but all pulses are legumes.

Legumes/pulses are used as an ingredient for both human and animal food and have become a common plant-based source of protein. Many of these ingredients have long been included in pet food.

Should pet food with pulses and legumes be avoided?

According to a study published in the Journal of Animal Science, March 2019, “vegetable ingredients, including pulses, are nutritious and can be used in combination with complementary ingredients to meet the nutritional needs of the dog. Dog food formulators should have a deep knowledge of processing methodologies and nutrient interactions beyond meeting the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient profiles and should not carelessly follow unsubstantiated market trends.” Neither the FDA or UCDavis is recommending that pulses and legumes be avoided.

What is a BEG diet?

BEG is a term coined by Dr. Lisa Freeman, DVM, Ph.D., DACVN of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University to mean “boutique (small company), exotic (nontraditional meat proteins), and grain-free” foods. The term has no standard definition in the pet food industry, nor is there agreement among veterinarians for what constitutes “boutique”, “exotic”, or even “grain free”.

Dr. Freeman is an advocate of “traditional” pet foods including Purina ProPlan, Iams/Eukanuba, Hill’s and Royal Canin. She is the source of the information many veterinarians sent recently to customers and patients advising them to stop feeding grain-free foods in favor of the above pet food brands, despite there being no such warning from the FDA.

What should a pet parent do?

First, if your dog is showing possible signs of DCM or other heart conditions, including decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing and episodes of collapse, you should contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may ask you for a thorough dietary history of all the foods (including treats) the dog has eaten.

Second, the FDA recommends that concerned pet parents review the ingredients on their current foods to see whether legumes, pulses and/or potatoes are listed as a main ingredient. High levels of legumes, pulses or potatoes appear to be more common in dry foods labeled as “grain-free,” but it is not known if or how these ingredients might be linked to cases of DCM.

Finally, the FDA suggests putting this issue in context. “To put this issue into proper context, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are 77 million pet dogs in the United States. As of November 30, 2018, the FDA has received reports about 325 dogs diagnosed with DCM suspected to be linked to diet. Tens of millions of dogs have been eating dog food without developing DCM. If you are concerned about the diet you are currently feeding your dog, FDA recommends consulting with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to discuss the best and safest diet for your dog.”

Where does Paul’s Custom Pet Food fit in?

PCPF is concerned about the incidences of DCM in all dogs. And we have a personal interest in that we have a 12-year-old Golden Retriever who eats a balanced, beef-based, fresh-food diet containing kidney beans and no grains. He does not eat any other commercial dry or wet food.

Our five current PCPF fresh food varieties are registered with the Connecticut and New York state departments of agriculture for use as a supplement (aka topper) to balanced commercial pet food or with an approved canine vitamin/mineral. All items sold as pet food — treats included — are required to be registered with the state’s animal feed control office, usually found within that state’s department of agriculture.

When customers ask which commercial food we recommend, we suggest they look for those listing meat as the top few ingredients. For those who eschew commercial dry or wet food, we recommend a canine vitamin/mineral from Chef’s Canine Complete (www.mypetgrocer.com) or BalanceIt (www.balanceit.com). These brands include the vitamins and minerals healthy dogs need to balance a fresh-food diet, however, BalanceIt does not include taurine if that is a concern.

PCPF will be introducing a complete and balanced fresh dog food for adult maintenance and will be offering the Chef’s Canine Complete vitamin/mineral mix this year. The complete and balanced food has been formulated by Pet Recipe Designers, an organization founded by Dr. Rebecca Remillard, DVM, DACVN.  Dr. Remillard is a diplomate of veterinary nutrition with the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN), one of only 94 such board-certified nutritionists in the world.

Please feel free to comment below, or contact us with any questions about this issue, our recipes, or custom food. We encourage you to read the publications cited below and draw your own conclusions from fact-based research, not fear tactics.

Resources

Most of the above information was excerpted from the following reports:

FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (February 2019)

https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/NewsEvents/ucm630993.htm?fbclid=IwAR2ULRAVUBgLgVzyhXDFJ5lkSuL9UnzBvVAuotpEoY4c00b4U87NqBiV3aY

FDA Provides Update on Investigation into Potential Connection Between Certain Diets and Cases of Canine Heart Disease (February 2019)

https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/NewsEvents/CVMUpdates/ucm630991.htm?fbclid=IwAR0mdgmaSPAtG_Nq9Yk4RB6-MPhPy3AAeXUr27E0C_FKaIviz6VxLhyIaVQ

Vet-LIRN Update on Investigation into Dilated Cardiomyopathy (February 2019)

https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ScienceResearch/ucm630738.htm?fbclid=IwAR1WF6UoK3MgF3P_rue-YGExhXXmJlRuEEbehi_P5Y9NrjOo6GNyr1IfXHw

Taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy in golden retrievers fed commercial diets (UCDavis)

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0209112

Cardiology Service Updates: Dog Food & Dilated Cardiomyopathy (UCDavis)

https://ccah.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk4586/files/local_resources/pdfs/ucd-diet-and-dcm-handout.pdf

Special topic: The association between pulse ingredients and canine dilated cardiomyopathy: addressing the knowledge gaps before establishing causation (Journal of Animal Science, March 2019)

https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/97/3/983/5279069

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