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Vet: Grain-free dog food study no cause for alarm


Warnings from a federal agency about grain-free dog food are not cause to panic, according to a local veterinarian.


By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Friday, July 27, 2018

Warnings from a federal agency about grain-free dog food should not be a cause for alarm, according to a local veterinarian.

The Food and Drug Administration is warning dog owners about the possible link between heart disease in dogs and grain-free dog food after several reports of dilated cardiomopathy — or DCM — in dogs eating peas, lentils, potatoes and legume seeds which are common main ingredients in grain-free dog food. 

According to the FDA’s website, reports of DCM are affecting breeds of dogs who are not typically prone to the disease.  

As part of a statement issued July 12, the FDA said Canine 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, leading to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen.

DCM often results in congestive heart failure. Heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification, if caught early.

Dr. Lauren Mercer-Hopkins, a veterinarian with East Carolina Veterinary Service in Greenville, said at this point, the FDA’s findings should not cause dog owners who use grain-free diets undue worry. 

“The evidence is unclear at this time exactly what role diet has played in the increased incidence of DCM in dogs,” Mercer-Hopkins said.  “Odds are, if you are feeding a grain-free diet, your dog will be just fine. However, there is a chance that it could cause an issue.

“If I had a puppy, I wouldn't choose to start it on a grain-free diet unless absolutely necessary,” she said.

The FDA is not sure what the underlying cause of DCM is or even if DCM is genetic. Breeds typically more frequently affected by DCM include large and giant breed dogs, such as Great Danes, Boxers, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards and Doberman Pinschers.

It is less common in small and medium breed dogs, except American and English Cocker Spaniels. However, the cases that have been reported to the FDA have included Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, a Shih Tzu, a Bulldog and Miniature Schnauzers, as well as mixed breeds, the FDA’s website read. 

Mercer-Hopkins said her office has not seen any cases of DCM related to a dog’s diet. 

“Most of these cases are being diagnosed by veterinary cardiologists via echocardiography. This is the gold standard for imaging the heart,” Mercer-Hopkins said. 

Diets in DCM cases that were reported to the FDA frequently list potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other “pulses” (seeds of legumes), and their protein, starch and fiber derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients. 

The FDA’s website lists common symptoms of DCM which include:

  • Decreased energy
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Episodes of collapse. 

Mercer-Hopkins said regardless of the food owners choose to give their dogs, sudden diet changes should be avoided.

“If you are going to switch your pet's food, do it gradually by mixing with the old diet for 7-14 days,” she said. 

Mercer-Hopkins said grain-free diets for dogs have become popular with owners largely due to advertising.

“Because humans can have gluten allergy, we have sort of tacked that onto our canine friends and believe that grain-free is better,” she said. “We see dogs with allergies every day in the clinic. More than 80 percent of dogs are itchy/allergic due to environmental allergies or fleas. Dogs that do have food allergies (either skin based or gastrointestinal) are typically treated with a novel protein diet, not grain-free.

“Grain-free diets also are not hypoallergenic and are truly only medically necessary in a very small number of cases,” she said.

“Grain free does not mean that the diet is better,” Mercer-Hopkins said. “Stick with the more mainstream brands, avoid exotic proteins and boutique brand dog foods,”

If you feed your dog a home-cooked diet, Mercer-Hopkins said owners should ensure that it is appropriately balanced for a dog.

“As always, if you have diet concerns, talk to your veterinarian,” Mercer-Hopkins said. “They can keep you up to date and give you the very best suggestions for your pet and their specific nutritional needs.”

The FDA encourages pet owners and veterinary professionals to report cases of DCM in dogs suspected of having a link to diet by using the electronic Safety Reporting Portal or calling their state’s FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators. 

To read the full FDA report visit FDA.gov

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566. Follow him on Twitter @TylerstocksGDR