Is your dog at risk of heart disease? You may have heard that the FDA is currently investigating a potential link between canine heart disease (specifically Dilated Cardiomyopathy) and grain-free dog food diets. But what does this mean for you and your furry friend? We have compiled the information that you, as a pet owner, should know about what this investigation means and to help you make the best choices for your dog!
Why is the FDA Investigating Dog Food?
Back in 2018, the FDA issued a warning against grain-free diets based on peas, lentils, or potatoes, saying that these ingredients may be linked to canine dilated cardiomyopathy. Recently, the FDA released a lengthy report outlining 16 popular brands that have since been linked to this deadly disease. Since this information has been available, many vets have agreed to begin moving away from grain-free diets in general. This is especially true for grain-free diets that don’t meet certain nutritional standards or food that has been directly associated with heart disease in dogs.
Since the release of the FDA statement, there has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding this issue. Many dog owners have been swearing by grain-free diets for many years. Some pet owners even believe that grain-free diets have improved their dogs’ health, or even helped cure their ailments. However, it is important to consider the FDA doesn’t suggest that dog owners stop feeding these brands altogether.
“We’re not saying don’t use these brands, we’re just telling pet owners to work directly with their veterinarians because we’re still investigating,” Lindsay Haake, a spokesperson for the FDA, advises.
Let’s explore some of the history that started the popular wave of the grain-free diet for dogs. After that, we will dive into what exactly the FDA report says and what it means for you and your pets.
Why Grain-Free Diets Became Popular
For many years, pet owners around the world have supported grain-free diets. The biggest argument for a grain-free diet seems simple enough: today’s dogs and their wild ancestors share many similarities. In the wild, wolves don’t eat grain; they eat meat, perhaps the occasional berries, and that’s about it. Think about it: you don’t see wolf packs gathering together to take down a wheat field. This same logic has prompted the argument for feeding dogs a strictly raw diet to improve their health. Although this argument may make sense at first, it isn’t without its flaws.
The most notable flaw is simple: dogs aren’t wolves. Though they have their similarities, dogs have evolved to live alongside humans and as a result have always consumed a diet significantly different from that of their ancestors. Comparing dogs and wolves is like comparing apples and oranges, or, in this case, meat and grain. The dietary needs of dogs have evolved along with them.
So what is the real reason behind the popularity of grain-free diets? Well, it might all come down to marketing. Grain-free pet food is easy to market, and some dog parents truly believe that it is the right choice for their dogs. Some dog owners like to think that their dog is just like a wolf, and so that Sparky should be eating like a wolf, too. Unfortunately, these pet owners may have been misled.
What Exactly Is Wrong With Grain-Free?
The short answer? Grain-free diets may not be the problem. Instead, the problem lies in certain ingredients and how they are used in each food’s formula. It is important to consider that not all grain-free dog food is created equal. Some popular grain-free diets have replaced meat with plant-based protein like potatoes, peas, and lentils, and this can lead to problems. Meat is dense in nutrients that dogs need, and when meat is replaced with other plant-based ingredients, the ratio of protein to carbohydrates can be skewed, leading to weight gain and other health problems–most notably, heart disease.
So what does this mean? Simply put, if you’re feeding grain-free, your dog is probably consuming more complex carbohydrates and fat than they should.
Another problem with the grain-free diet craze is the issue of taurine. Taurine is an amino acid found only in animal tissue. This compound is absolutely necessary for dogs, and taurine deficiencies can cause all kinds of health problems, including – you guessed it – heart disease. By replacing meat with plant alternatives, dogs aren’t getting the nutrients they need, and cardiomyopathy is the unfortunate result.
Now that we have discussed the facts and opinions surrounding grain-free diets for dogs, let’s dive into the FDA report and why you should care about the results.
The FDA Report
According to the 77-page report released by the FDA in June of 2019, there is evidence that several popular pet food brands have been linked to heart disease in dogs. Currently, the FDA is investigating over 500 reports of heart disease associated with grain-free dog food brands, and they released 16 brand names that may be linked to the disease.
The following are the brands identified in the FDA’s report for having the most cases related to Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy. The number next to the brand name represents how many cases of the disease were reported to the FDA.
- Acana: 67
- Zignature: 64
- Taste of the Wild: 53
- 4Health: 32
- Earthborn Holistic: 32
- Blue Buffalo: 31
- Nature’s Domain: 29
- Fromm: 24
- Merrick: 16
- California Natural: 15
- Natural Balance: 15
- Orijen: 12
- Nature’s Variety: 11
- NutriSource: 10
- Nutro: 10
- Rachael Ray Nutrish: 10
Most of the reports listed were associated with dry dog food formulas, however, the complete list also includes raw dog food, semi-moist dog food, and wet dog food, as well.
If you’ve been feeding your dog any of the above-referenced brands, or another brand found in the FDA’s report, there is no need to panic. The FDA has not asked any of the companies to recall their products, nor does the agency suggest that pet owners immediately stop feeding these brands their dogs.
“We have shared case report information with these firms so they can make informed decisions about the marketing and formulation of their products,” the FDA writes. “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, who may consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, for individualized advice that considers your dog’s specific needs and medical history.”
Of course, it is always a good idea to have your dog examined by a vet on a yearly basis, just to be safe.
You can read more about the research that went into these findings in this FDA article that investigates the link between diet and heart disease in dogs.
What is canine heart disease?
You may be asking yourself: what is heart disease in dogs? Does it look anything like heart disease in people? The thought of our canine companions being at risk of heart disease may surprise some pet owners since heart disease is something that is usually associated with humans and humans only. It is estimated that around 7.8 million dogs in the United States have heart disease. Even as this number rises, many people are unaware that their pet is at risk until it is too late.
For dogs, the umbrella term “Heart Disease” includes several different diseases. The most common form of heart disease in dogs is known as valvular disease, making up 70-75% of all cases. Valvular disease is mostly seen in dogs over 5 years old. Small breed dogs are particularly susceptible.
Another type of heart disease that affects dogs is Heartworm Disease. Making up 13% of heart disease in dogs, this disease is entirely preventable with proper care.
Lastly, there is Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy. For the purpose of this article, when we discuss “Heart Disease,” this is the disease that we are talking about. While it only makes up 8% of heart disease cases, millions of dogs currently suffer from this disease.
When a dog suffers from Dilated Cardiomyopathy (also known as DCM), their heart muscles will start to degenerate and wear thin. In time, this will decrease the strength of the heart and will eventually lead to congestive heart failure.
Heart Disease in Dogs – What You Need To Know
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Heart Disease?
Many veterinarians recommend that you should have your dog screened for heart disease once a year, or every 6 months for older dogs.
The exam for screening this disease is simple – your veterinarian will listen to your dog’s heart, and if they suspect that there is a problem, they will take your dog’s blood pressure and/or suggest other tests. Some of these tests may include an x-ray, cardiac ultrasound, or ECG. These tests will help to confirm your dog’s diagnosis and also help to determine the cause and type of heart disease. Knowing the cause will help you and your vet decide what type of treatment is right for your dog.
Unfortunately, not much information is available on the subject of preventing heart disease in dogs. Although proper diet and exercise are important in the prevention of diseases like obesity, arthritis, and diabetes, there is no research showing that diet and exercise alone will prevent Dilated Cardiomyopathy in dogs. For now, regular examinations are a great place to start. Talk to your vet to better understand your dog’s risks and what you can do now to ensure a happy, healthy life.
There is no known cure for congestive heart failure in dogs. However, there are medications that your vet can prescribe to help your dog’s heart. A clinical trial that studied dogs with congestive heart failure found that dogs treated with a medication called pimobendan enjoyed a higher quality of life and lived longer than dogs treated through other methods. Of course, your veterinarian can best help you find the best treatment for your dog.
Every dog is different, and every dog food is different, too. There is a simple answer to the question that everybody is asking: what on Earth am I supposed to feed my dog? According to the FDA, “different dogs have different nutritional needs based on a number of factors, so nutrition advice is not one-size-fits-all. The FDA recommends asking your veterinarian, who may consult a board-certified or veterinary nutritionist, for advice about what to feed your dog.”
In this same publication, the agency also adds, “It’s important to note that the reports include dogs that have eaten grain-free and grain containing foods and also include vegetarian or vegan formulations. They also include all forms of diets: kibble, canned, raw and home-cooked. Therefore, we do not think these cases can be explained simply by whether or not they contain grains, or by brand or manufacturer.”
The FDA concludes with the following: “To put this issue into proper context, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are 77 million pet dogs in the United States. As of April 30, 2019, the FDA has received reports about 560 dogs diagnosed with DCM suspected to be linked to diet. Tens of millions of dogs have been eating dog food without developing DCM. If you are concerned about the diet you are currently feeding your dog, FDA recommends working with your veterinarian, who may consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, to determine the best diet for your dog’s need.”
So in sum: what is best for one dog might not be ideal for another. You may even have two very similar dogs who require very different diets to thrive. The important thing is that you are proactive about your dog’s health!
So now that you know what may cause heart disease in dogs and the foods that may be contributing to it, you want to take action. You might even be thinking about transitioning your dog to a new brand of food altogether.
Remember, though: The FDA states in their report that there is no need to immediately change your dog’s diet if they are currently eating food made from one of the companies on the list. So if a food change is not quite in the budget at the moment, there is definitely no need to panic.
However, if you think you are ready to treat your dog to something new, there are fortunately many healthy dog food options out there. Below are a couple of our favorite choices and some reasons we find them so great.
Ever see dog food so good that you want to dig into it yourself? Probably not–that is, until you have seen what Ollie is cooking up for our canine companions. You will not find any mass-produced “mystery” meat in any of Ollie’s products; that is because all of its food is lovingly prepared at a USDA-certified facility. So in all honesty, you could go ahead and take a bite if you wanted.
What’s more, Ollie has the right balance of the right stuff, which means more than just delicious meat (although there is plenty of that–65% in fact); you will also find plenty of healthy carbohydrates. Ollie has several different varieties to choose from: lamb, beef, chicken, and turkey. All recipes are dog and veterinary nutritionist-approved!
Castor and Pollux
You won’t find anything nasty in Castor and Pollux’s delectable food–and you won’t find anything important left out either. With real high-quality chicken as the star of the meal, Castor and Pollux also includes flaxseed oil and brown rice. Actually, it is packed with great stuff all around!
Like Ollie, it is the right balance of everything your dog needs to thrive: fat, protein, and yes–even carbs!
Nom Nom Now
You have probably heard that fish oil is great for the health of your dog’s skin and fur, but you probably never got around to buying the supplements or oils that your vet recommended. When you choose Nom Nom Now, you don’t have to worry about those extras!
Like Castor and Pollux, it is filled with lots of essential vitamins and minerals; however, Nom Nom Now, like Ollie, boasts quite the expansive menu: everything from chicken and turkey to beef and even pork! Nom Nom Now also has the gold star of a veterinary nutritionist. Actually, veterinary nutritionist Dr. Justin Shmalberg whipped these gourmet meals up himself!
Farmer’s Dog is a little different from other brands, in that it is made to suit YOUR dog’s specific needs! You get to choose what’s on the menu for your dog biweekly, according to his nutritional needs. This food features everything required for a healthy balanced diet: veggies, fruit, carbs, healthy fats, and protein. What’s more, Farmer’s Dog is the perfect choice for the eco-conscious pet owner, as all food will be delivered to you in packaging made from biodegradable, recyclable materials.