It was only by chance that veterinarians discovered that Martha Martin’s beloved black Lab, Sophie, had developed a potentially fatal heart disease.
The dog was being treated for a snake bite when the veterinarian detected an abnormal heart rhythm and ordered up an echocardiogram.
“I’ll never forget when the vet turned to me and asked if Sophie was being fed a grain-free dog food,” Martin remembers. “I felt like someone sucker punched me.”
The 7-year-old dog had been consuming the same brand of grain-free canine food since she was a puppy — as had Martin’s other dog, Bailey. An echocardiogram showed that 9-year-old Bailey also had the beginnings of dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM.
Martin switched both dogs to a different food, one that contained grain, hoping that might help heal their hearts.
In the more than two years since the Food and Drug Administration first warned dog owners about heart failure in their animals that may be associated with grain-free pet foods, more than 200 dogs have reportedly died from the condition and scientists are still trying to figure out why.
Research has suggested that ingredients used in place of grains in dog food might be involved in the development of DCM, a disease in which the heart gets larger, leaving it weaker. Some breeds of large dogs are genetically susceptible to DCM, including Great Danes, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers, according to VCA Animal Hospitals.
“Most of the diets associated with the reports of non-hereditary DCM have legume seed ingredients, also called “pulses”— peas and lentils, for example — high in their ingredient lists,” FDA spokesperson Monique Richards said. “Although soy is a legume, we did not see a signal associated with this ingredient.”
The issue may be the quantity of ingredients used in nontraditional dog foods.
“Legumes, including pulse ingredients, have been used in pet foods for many years, with no evidence to indicate they are inherently dangerous, but analysis of data reported to [the FDA] indicates that pulse ingredients are used in many “grain-free” diets in greater proportion than in most grain-containing formulas,” Richards said in an email to NBC News. “FDA has asked pet food manufacturers to provide diet formulations so we can further understand the proportions of ingredients in commercially-available diets and possible relationships with non-hereditary DCM.”
However, it’s not clear whether it’s simply the amount of these ingredients in the foods, said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, a veterinary cardiologist in the department of clinical sciences at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“It may not just be what is in the diet,” he said. “It could be where it’s sourced from or how it’s processed.”
A recent study showed that dogs with DCM that were consuming nontraditional dog foods were more likely to show improvements in the condition and to live longer if, along with their heart medications, they were switched to a traditional dog food.
“Our study was a retrospective look at 75 dogs with DCM over a period of time that was just under five years,” said the study’s co-author, Dr. Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “One of the new findings in our study was that we had a significant increase over time in the number of dogs with DCM. That increase began even before the first FDA alert.”
To date, the FDA hasn’t recommended a recall of any grain-free products or declared any specific pet food products unsafe. To submit a safety report to the FDA, go to the Safety Reporting Portal.
The Pet Food Institute responded in a statement to NBC News, “PFI member nutritionists, veterinarians and product safety specialists have been closely studying dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) to better understand whether there is a relationship between DCM and diet in dogs not genetically predisposed to the disease. Drawing on our review of both historic and recent scientific analyses and published papers, PFI members are devoting thousands of hours to improving our understanding of DCM and its causes, all with the goal of advancing pet well-being.”
nbcnews.com, 7 March 2021