Written by Krista, Owner and Lacy, Pack Leader
Last year we wrote a blog regarding the first announcement from the FDA that they were investigating a possible link between grain-free diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), otherwise known as enlarged heart. Social media and many news outlets had a field day with the announcement of the investigation, drawing premature conclusions and scaring dog lovers everywhere. Now, one year later, the FDA has published an update that has caused more fear, more panic, and more confusion, while providing absolutely no answers whatsoever.
Many of you have reached out to us asking our opinion on this update and we have it documented here for you. We want to stress that as dog parents and as people that are wildly passionate about natural, healthy, vibrant dogs and cats – it’s the reason St PetersBARK exists, after all! – we’re as concerned as our customers are. As with the previous post on this topic, we hope to calm the panic, provide some objective points, give you some ideas on what you can do right now, and keep you informed on what we at St PetersBARK are doing about this to continue providing the best nutrition options for your beloved pet.
Beyond the Headlines: Have You Read the Report?
If your only exposure to this topic so far has been the news headlines, we strongly urge you to read both the full FDA update as well as the data they released which is what all the news stations are cherry picking from. We also insist that you take the time to read through the FAQ on this investigation.
The first thing we want to point out is that what has been released is still just part of an ongoing FDA investigation. This update does NOT represent a conclusive scientific study by any means; it represents a trend and is a potentially biased collection of data from reported cases of diagnosed DCM in dogs and cats (whether that DCM was truly diet-related or not). The update tells us that there is not yet a scientifically established correlation – let alone causation – between grain-free foods and DCM. Last year, the FDA urged consumers and vets to report cases of DCM in dogs that were fed a diet “containing peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients.” This – combined with increased testing for DCM – resulted in an uptick of reports of DCM coming from dogs fed grain-free diets – a classic display of confirmation bias.
Furthermore, the graph of brands you’ve seen all over the news closely resembles a market share report of those brands’ sales in the grain-free market, which the FDA acknowledges in the FAQ page: “The prevalence of reports in dogs eating a grain-free diet might correlate also to market share: these products have become exceedingly popular over the last several years.” It is very important to note that DCM can and does occur in dogs fed either grain-free or grain diets. Again, according to the FDA: “Although there are significantly fewer reports of dogs who ate diets containing grains, the FDA has received some complaints associated with grain-containing diets.”
An Outlier, But Not Something to be Ignored
Another thing we’d like to point out is the incredibly small percentage of dogs and even smaller percentage of cats that have been reported and diagnosed with DCM in the last 5 years. The dogs in the reports were mostly large breeds, including Labs (known to suffer from DCM) and Golden Retrievers (suspected to be genetically predisposed to taurine deficiency, which causes DCM). In 2018, there were just 320 cases of diagnosed DCM in dogs reported to the FDA. Note that there are around 80 million dogs in the United States, for an incident rate of 0.0004%. While each and every case of illness is a tragedy for the dog and its owners, it is important to have some perspective about how rare this condition is when choosing what to do about this news.
The number of suspected diet-related DCM cases reported to the FDA are VERY small in relation to the population of pet dogs in the U.S, but we don’t really know how often DCM occurs, in general. According to the FDA, “the occurrence of different diseases in dogs and cats is not routinely tracked and there is no widespread surveillance system like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have for human health”. For that reason, “we do not have a measure of the typical rate of occurrence of disease apart from what is reported to the FDA.”
That said, you should most certainly look out for symptoms if you have a large/giant breed dog or a breed known to be predisposed regardless of what type of food you feed!
Answers: The FDA (and your vet) Have None
Again, we do not take this investigation lightly. It’s utterly heartbreaking that dogs have gotten sick and people have lost their beloved family members. The reason we point out these statistics and reporting issues is for objective perspective – to calm the panic. It’s clear that something may be impacting what vets see as a rise in DCM cases – but what? The FDA has been clear in all of their statements thus far that they do not know. From the most recent update, the FDA states multiple times, in multiple ways, on every single one of their pages covering this topic that at this time they do not have clear, conclusive evidence on why, how, or even if the diets are related to the rise in DCM cases in the last year and a half.
From “FDA Provides Third Status Report on Investigation into Potential Connection Between Certain Diets and Cases of Canine Heart Disease” statement released on June 27, 2019:
- “To date, the FDA has not established why certain diets may be associated with the development of DCM in some dogs.”
- “At this stage of the investigation, the FDA cannot attest to whether or how (emphasis ours) these case reports are linked to diet.”
- “Based on the data collected and analyzed thus far, the [investigating] agency believes that the potential (emphasis ours) association between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.”
- During the investigation and data collection, “there have been a greater proportion of males than females [diagnosed with DCM], consistent with what is seen in genetic forms. The significance of this is unknown, but it may be that some cases are genetic in origin or a combination of diet and genetic tendencies.”
- “The FDA is continuing to investigate and gather more information in an effort to identify whether (emphasis ours) there is a specific dietary link to development of DCM and will provide updates to the public as information develops.”
- “At this time, we are not advising dietary changes based solely on the information we have gathered so far. If you have questions or concerns about your dog’s health or its diet, we suggest that you consult your veterinarian”
With a topic involving a lot of emotion and so many unknowns, it’s important to isolate these statements and truly digest them. The investigation is ongoing and the cases continue to be explored. While we are certainly concerned with anything that threatens the health and well-being of our precious pets, we do not believe there is enough information to panic or even change what you’re currently doing if your pet is in good health. However, we understand if you want to modify your dog’s diet for peace of mind.
Given the fact that the FDA is very clear in their statements that they have not found a true, evidence-based causative link between certain grain-free foods and DCM, it’s unfortunate that they have prematurely chosen to name specific brands – especially since these brands have many different formulas with completely different ingredients. And even though the FDA has been clear regarding the uncertainties surrounding this entire issue, the media has taken the information and run with it (as the media likes to do), posting alarmist headlines that state grain-free foods are causing heart disease, when that is not factual.
So What About Taurine?
Taurine deficiency has long been recognized as a cause of DCM. Taurine, an amino acid found naturally in meat, fish, and dairy, is important for the heart health of dogs and humans alike. In addition to obtaining taurine from dietary sources, most dogs are able to make their own from the amino acids cysteine and methionine. However, some dog breeds are predisposed to taurine deficiency, even when they consume adequate levels of these amino acids.
According to the FDA report, “nearly all the grain-free products [studied] had methionine-cystine values above the minimum nutritional requirement of 0.65 percent for adult maintenance food for dogs published in the AAFCO Official Publication (OP).” While studying reported cases of DCM, the investigators saw mixed taurine levels in the affected dogs and are still studying why some dogs produce normal taurine results while others test low. What seems clear is that the grain-free foods themselves do not have any obvious deficiencies of any of these critical amino acids and that many dogs eating grain-free foods do not show deficiencies in taurine. Again, the FDA isn’t sure about the role that taurine plays in this DCM investigation and investigators are still collecting data.
Legumes: Are There Dots to Connect?
Legumes (and the amount of them used in a food) are believed to be a piece of the puzzle – probably the piece we’re paying attention to the most. Peas, lentils, chickpeas/garbanzo beans, soybeans, other beans, as well as peanuts are all legumes. Many of these are commonly found on grain-free dog food labels as a “main ingredient” (defined by the FDA as being in the first ten listed ingredients). They also appear in grain-containing foods, but usually in lesser quantities than in grain-free formulas. In addition to legumes, the FDA calls out potatoes as being a potential issue, but there aren’t as many cases associated with potato-containing foods.
Again, the FDA does not know why, how, or if legumes are associated with DCM. Maybe they impact taurine synthesis, absorption, or metabolism in certain dogs that are predisposed to deficiencies, but we don’t have answers yet. It is very important to note that just because a food is “Grain-Free” does not necessarily mean it contains a large amount of legumes. If legumes end up being implicated in DCM, there is no reason to think that grain-free foods are the problem – only those that contain large amounts of legumes or possibly certain types of legumes. This is something we hope the FDA dives very deep into over the upcoming months.
Moving Forward: I Want the Best For My Dog – What Should I Do Next?
We’re not here to convince you to continue feeding the brands named, or tell you that there is no cause for concern. We are asking that you take the information from the FDA’s statements and make your own decisions based on what you know about your own pet. We are here to help you navigate the situation and see it for what it is: a collection of raw data from a relatively small sample of dogs and an investigation in its infancy. And like we said in our post about this last year, we don’t think grain-in or grain-free is better than the other. We don’t believe in a “best diet” for all dogs since all dogs are different. We always have and always will suggest foods and solutions to you that is best for your individual pet.
Here are some suggestions for next steps:
- Educate yourself and talk to your vet, knowing that your vet has the exact same information as we do right now. Ask questions and don’t let them shame you (which unfortunately we keep hearing from our customers) for trying to do the best for your dog.
- If you decide or your Vet encourages you to switch to a grain-in, low-legume, or no-legume food or you’d like to feed a brand that’s not on “the list”, we offer plenty of products for you to choose from (see below for a list of grain-in, legume-free, legume-light, and non-FDA mentioned brands)
- If your dog is healthy and happy, you may want to keep doing exactly what you’re doing. Think back to when you started feeding a grain-free diet. Maybe your dog is grain-free because they had severe skin issues and the diet off Acana or Zignature has reversed the issue. If you are concerned about DCM, you can monitor your dogs for symptoms or even have tests done.
- Switch to a raw, whole foods diet or implement as much raw, fresh (non-processed) food as you can. All of the raw food we carry is completely legume-free and is high in taurine.
- Include one of our dehydrated base mixes to a home-cooked diet to ensure the meals are complete and balanced. We stock Sojos which has an awesome legume-free option for you.
- Rotate brands and/or food types: pick a few brands that you feel comfortable with based on your dog’s individual needs, the company, and the ingredients, and rotate them to ensure diverse nutrition. You can do this with kibble, canned, freeze-dried, dehydrated and raw food types.
- If you feel most comfortable switching over to Purina, Royal Canin, Eukanuba, or Iams and still want to support St PetersBARK, feel free to call or text (contact info below) us to order this food for you. We can set up a standing order and re-order automatically for you. Ask a pack member for details on our standing order process.
As always we never recommend doing a hard switch to a new food. Ensure you go through the proper transition process when implementing a new food for your dogs. If you have questions on transitioning food, please don’t hesitate to ask us for help.
A Final Word From the Owner: What is St. PetersBARK doing about this?
First of all, I want to thank all of our customers, friends, and family members that find this investigation so important that they’ve come to us for our advice and opinion. This gesture means the world to us. Thank you for your trust and concern.
As a business owner it is important for me to adjust and navigate an ever-changing and VERY emotional industry. We are providing products and guidance for pet parents who love their pets like their own children. We are just like our customers in that we are wholly obsessed with our pets. Because of that we stock what we think are the most amazing products that we can find based on our knowledge and experience at the time. However, I am not too arrogant or proud to have to change up or remove some of our existing offerings as we find out more information from this investigation. I’m not going to just simply bury my head in the sand and ignore this issue – that would be irresponsible.
One of the reasons I started this business was to provide a judgement-free, genuinely helpful place and that goal doesn’t change because of situations like this. We want to maintain open, respectful conversations between customers online, over the phone, and especially in the shop. We are here to help you no matter what and (in this case) even when we have absolutely no conclusive guidance from the FDA or any veterinarians. I’ve been racking my brain since this update came out about how we move forward as a store and together as a staff to maintain the trust and support we’ve built up over almost 5 years.
St PetersBARK’s Next Steps
- Continue to stay informed, objective, transparent, helpful, compassionate, and judgement-free
- Offer a few more grain-in, legume-free options for our customers including Farmina which is getting delivered on 7/3/19. (This food rocks!!)
- Expand our raw diet offerings by getting a new freezer late this summer.
- Keep an eye out for changes in formulas from our vendors and inform our customers
- Do whatever we can to transition your existing frequent buyer over to a new brand’s card if you choose to switch foods (cannot guarantee this but will do our best to make it happen)
- Continue to provide a reliable standing order process for customers that want to support us but choose to feed their dogs a product we don’t carry.
- And of course I’m open to your suggestions on how to move forward if you have any
We appreciate your love and support always and will be here for you if you want to chat with us.
Phone: 727-217-5366 Text: 727-490-9998 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Legume-free or legume-light foods that we stock currently:
*note we didn’t include wet food since the vast majority is legume free or very light using whole peas*
- Answers Raw Diets
- NWN Raw & Freeze Dried
- Stella & Chewy’s Raw & Freeze Dried only
- Open Farm Freeze Dried
**All above brands completely legume free
- Fromm Classic Adult
- Fromm Chicken a la veg
- Fromm Duck a la veg
- Fromm Salmon A la veg
- Fromm Gold Puppy & Large Breed Puppy
- Fromm Gold Adult, Small Breed Adult, Large Breed Adult
- Fromm Senior/Reduced Calorie
**All Fromm above are completely legume free
- Fromm Weight Management – light legume content (only pea fiber very far down on the ingredient list)
- Nutrisource Sm/Med Puppy (grain-in)
- Nutrisource Beef Rice
- Nutrisource Lamb Rice
- Nutrisource Adult (chicken & rice)
**All Nutrisource above are complete legume free
- Nutrisource Large Breed Puppy (grain-in) – light legume content (only contains whole peas)
- Venture Squid (light-legume, just peas)
- Venture Turkey (light-legume, just peas)
- Venture Pollock (this formula completely legume free)
- Victor Hi-Pro Plus
- Victor Beef & Rice
- Victor Chicken & Rice
- Victor Lamb & Rice
**All victor above are completely legume free
- **on the shelves tomorrow 7/3/2019**
Farmina Ancestral Grain diets – all completely legume free
- Sojos Beef
- Sojos Turkey
- Sojos Base Mix
**All Sojos above is completely legume free
- Sojos Lamb – light legume content (only whole peas)
- Honest Kitchen Whole Grain Chicken – light legume content (only whole peas)
- Honest Kitchen Whole Grain Turkey – completely legume free
Brands we carry that were not on the FDA’s list
- Open Farm
- Pure Vita
- Stella & Chewy’s Dry food
- Honest Kitchen Clusters
- Farmina (getting delivered on 7/3/19)
Image Source(s):Figure 1: Dog Food Brands Named Most Frequently in DCM Cases Reported to FDA. Adapted from U.S Food and Drug Administration, 2019, retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/news-events/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy.