You may remember a few months ago I wrote a post about some unsettling findings veterinarians were seeing in dogs who ate grain-free diets. You can read my original post here! Right about the time I wrote that piece, the FDA published their first report about the situation, and they have just released some of their most recent findings. It’s time for an update on this very complicated issue!
First, please read the full FDA report here.
So, what do we know? As of June 27th, 2019, 524 suspicious cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs and cats have been reported to the FDA. While some of the animals belong to breeds typically considered genetically predisposed to DCM, many of the affected dogs are either mixed breeds or breeds not usually considered at risk for DCM. What most of these animals have in common is that they were eating “boutique” grain-free pet food.
According to this most recent FDA report, 91% of the implicated diets were grain-free, and 93% of the diets contained peas or lentils. Peas and lentils have been on the rise in pet food as a substitute for grains which had fallen out of favor with many pet owners due to marketing strategies of some pet food companies. It’s still too early to say for sure, but it’s possible the presence of peas and lentils (rather than the lack of grains) could be causing these nutritional-mediated DCM cases.
At this point, you might be thinking that less than 600 cases of an obscure heart disease out of all the dogs in the United States is irrelevant, but I urge you to consider these next few bits of information. First, DCM is an insidious disease. The Merck Vet Manual reports that 65% of Dobermans with classical DCM died within 8 weeks of diagnosis, and 75% of other breeds died within 6 months (Source). By the time most pet owners realize their pet is sick, it’s often already too late.
Another key point to remember is that just because there are only less than 600 reported cases, there are likely many more out there. How many pets simply passed away whose owners did not request a necropsy or other investigative information? How many dogs around the country are being treated symptomatically for heart disease without the expensive diagnostic tests to confirm a diagnosis of DCM? How many veterinarians are actively reporting suspect cases to the FDA? I think it is safe to say there are many cases out there that may never make it to any official report.
As current or future veterinary professionals, what can we do? First, educate yourself on DCM and on the ongoing inquiry into dog food companies. Read the FDA reports, read the FDA’s Q&A page, read the reports from the veterinary cardiologist Dr. Stern at UC Davis, and Dr. Freeman’s nutrition reports from Tufts. Second, familiarize yourself with the FDA reporting process. You can report a case online, right here! Lastly, (if you aren’t already) it’s time to start talking to our clients about this problem. Make nutrition a part of every physical exam and advise clients of suspect brands.
There is still so much we don’t know about DCM and how pet food diets may be contributing to the disease. However, we do know that something is going on, and it’s in the best interest of our pets to get to the bottom of it.