The heart of the matter...

One subject (along with Lyme disease), that tends to stir the pot and set it to boil, is the topic of pet-food. And it seems that with some regularity (i.e. every 2-3 years) veterinary researchers and nutritionists stumble upon something that is lacking in (or being added to) the diets we feed our dogs and cats that can make them sick- particularly if they happen to be a certain breed (or species) with a heightened nutritional sensitivity (or susceptibility), e.g. a need for taurine.

Right now, there are pet-foods for sale on grocery and pet store shelves (being manufactured for, purchased and then fed to dogs) that are actively being investigated by the FDA. The feeding of these diets to over 80 different dogs (of various breeds, ages and sizes) has been associated with development of a severe form of heart disease- dilated cardiomyopathy: (https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/NewsEvents/CVMUpdates/ucm613305.htm).  

Associated diets appear to be deficient in taurine (+/- cysteine, methionine) or have increased taurine loss (due to containing high levels of water-soluble fibre).  Ongoing research is working toward determining other possible dietary or dog related risk factors.For those of us who don’t speak ‘ingredient composition’ fluently, these diets are composed of peas (and likely their by-products, e.g. pea fiber and protein), lentils, chickpeas, legumes (vegetables or seeds of them), and (although less likely to be a primary culprit) potatoes. To break this down even further (and because marketing is purposefully confusing), many of the diets composed of these ingredients fly under the ‘grain-free’ banner. 

I could spend a lot of time talking about definitions (i.e. grain-free) and how terms like this can mean radically different things to different individuals (and pet-food companies), but that would be a lengthy (and heated) blog… so I’ll focus on the heart of the matter. This is (and should be) identifying dogs at risk from eating these diets, in order to keep them safe through prevention of a potentially fatal heart condition. 

We (pet-owners and veterinarians) need to be asking (demanding) questions of pet food companies prior to making (or advising) a pet-food purchase. These questions should be: 1) ingredient focused, i.e. what ingredients and levels of these are (or are not) in the food, and 2) quality assurance and testing protocols based, i.e. what tests (ideally performed by qualified labs) are completed on diet ingredients and final product prior to its being available for purchase (sale). In this moment, along with these questions (and particularly if your dog is eating a diet marketed as grain-free) you should be asking the pet-food manufacturer the following specific questions:

1)    Do you add taurine to your pet-food? 
2)   Do you have pet-food on shelves for sale (right now) that was made prior to your decision to add more taurine?

3)   How to I decipher the date code on your products (i.e. determine the date of manufacture), so I can figure out if your pet food was produced before (or after) your decision to add more taurine?

4)   If you are aware (or suspect) that your product is potentially harmful (and know that you are being investigated by the FDA), why haven’t you issued a recall of the product?

The bad news story is that no-one (i.e. the FDA, nor anyone else) has released a list of diets that are of concern or have been linked to heart disease. This leaves pet-owners (and veterinarians) unable to identify which diets are worrisome and proactively make changes (e.g. diet change, taurine supplementation, both), thus meaning extra steps (such as the questions above) are needed to identify pets at risk. However, the good news is that this form of dilated cardiomyopathy can be treated- provided it is caught early. 

Asking pet-food manufacturers the questions above NOW and speaking to your veterinarian if you are concerned about your dog’s diet (i.e. the pet food manufacturer cannot answer these questions, or you’re worried about their answer) could help you help your vet save your dog’s life.

July 23, 2018

Michelle Evason, DVM, BSc, DACVIM