Visiting Vet: Grain-free dog food

It may not help, and perhaps might harm.

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SBS in Vineyard Haven carries an array of dog food. — Photo by Kelsey Perrett

The New York Times recently published an article entitled “Popular Grain-Free Dog Foods May Be Linked to Heart Disease.” Ever since, I have been swamped with telephone calls, emails, people stopping me on the street, messaging me on Facebook, asking my opinion. First of all, folks, it’s August. Do me a favor. If you have a question, call me at the office. During office hours. I’ll be happy to talk to you then. Or even better, just read this now.

It all started when veterinary cardiologists noticed an increase in the number of dogs they were seeing with a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM.) The heart is really just one big muscle, with a system of chambers and valves that work to circulate blood to the lungs for oxygenating and then throughout the body. In DCM, the heart muscle weakens, the chambers enlarge, and the heart is not able to pump properly. Clinical signs can include lethargy, weakness, coughing, difficulty breathing, collapse, even sudden death. Treatment is aimed at improving cardiac function, reducing workload of the heart, addressing arrhythmias, and keeping lungs free of fluid congestion. Prognosis is guarded at best, with many animals succumbing to heart failure within a year or less.

Veterinarians have been diagnosing DCM for ages. We know in certain breeds it is an inheritable genetic disease. These breeds include, but are not limited to, boxer, Great Dane, cocker spaniel, Doberman pinscher, bullmastiff, German shepherd, Irish wolfhound, Newfoundland, Portuguese water dog, St. Bernard, Dalmatian, and Scottish deerhound. The recent hubbub began when veterinary cardiologists, particularly those working at various branches of a cardiac specialty group for pets called CVCA, saw a significant increase in the number of DCM cases they were seeing. And they were seeing it in unexpected breeds. golden retrievers, doodle mixes, Labrador retrievers, shih tzus. They reported this to the Food and Drug Administration. Veterinary cardiologists around the country began reporting the same phenomenon. Dachshunds, poodles, miniature schnauzers with DCM. What was going on?

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a young veterinarian, it was fairly common to see cats with DCM. By the late 1980s, it was discovered that the majority of these feline cases were the result of taurine deficiency in certain brands of commercial cat food. Taurine is an amino acid cats cannot produce on their own. Their bodies depend on eating meat (or properly formulated cat food) to supply this essential nutrient. A taurine-deficient diet can lead to DCM in cats. Correcting the diet and/or supplementing with taurine could actually correct the condition, if caught early enough. The cat food industry quickly adjusted their standards so that all quality commercial cat food now has sufficient taurine. Feline DCM has become an uncommon disease, with most contemporary cases being genetically based, or the result of inadequate homemade or vegetarian diets. Dogs, on the other hand, did not seem to have the same issue. Although taurine supplementation has sometimes been helpful in treating canine DCM, nutritional deficiencies were not considered a primary cause in dogs.

That was then. This is now. Now we are looking at an unexplained increase in cases of canine DCM often in breeds not previously thought to be at risk. As the numbers grew, the specialists noted many of the dogs presenting were on “grain-free” diets. To date, there is no proven cause-and-effect relationship between grain-free diets and DCM, but the red flag is flying. Martine Hartogensis, D.V.M., deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Surveillance and Compliance, puts it this way: “We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy, in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes, or potatoes as their main ingredients. These reports are highly unusual, as they are occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease. The FDA is investigating the potential link between DCM and these foods. We encourage pet owners and veterinarians to report DCM cases in dogs who are not predisposed to the disease.” If a link is proven, it still remains to establish whether it is related to the ingestion of legumes, the lack of grains, or even something to do with the “exotic” proteins often used in these diets such as kangaroo or bison.

So when Mrs. Luvmidoggy stops me in the produce aisle at Cronig’s, asking my recommendations on feeding Foo-Foo, what do I say (besides, “Please call me at the office”)? Well, why are you feeding this high-priced, weird grain-free dog food in the first place? Listen up, everyone. There is just no evidence that feeding a diet containing grains is in any way bad for Foo-Foo, unless she has a proven food allergy, which is relatively uncommon in dogs. I know that despite bread being the “staff of life” for thousands of years, suddenly everything has to be gluten-free. I’m not disputing some people truly need to avoid gluten, nor that the occasional dog may have grain allergies. What I am saying is that this sudden rush to feed all dogs fancy “grain-free” food is a fad. A fad that is costing you money, and very possibly may be costing a small but growing number of dogs their health.

If you are feeding Foo-Foo a designer grain-free dog food, don’t panic. The majority of dogs eating these diets appear to be healthy and thriving. Just be aware of this emerging discussion. Watch for signs of fatigue, weakness, coughing, trouble breathing. If Foo-Foo truly has a food allergy, discuss other options with your veterinarian. Otherwise, maybe consider weaning back onto a more traditional dog food. One of the old tried-and-true. One made with common proteins, like chicken, beef, lamb, turkey, and, yes, with grains. Save yourself a few dollars. Let the kangaroos, alligators, and wild boar live. Put the lentils and chickpeas in a nice soup for your family. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeding most dogs a good old-fashioned high-quality dog chow.