Grain-free dog food linked to heart problems in pets is puzzling situation for FDA

There is an update to a federal warning about grain-free dog food and heart problems in pets. The FDA said it is a puzzling situation.

Sarah Bettura is the mom of three dogs including 11-year-old Yogi.

“He’s an old dude. Super chill, laid back,” said Bettura.

She also has six-month old brothers Hank and Bruce.

“Hank the tank and juicy Brucey. I mean they’re maniacs, but I love them to death,” said Bettura.

She feeds all three dogs a grain-free diet.

“We’ve been super happy with it. That was always the recommendation from our vets early on and we find that there’s not a lot of byproducts,” said Bettura.

But the FDA believes something in grain-free pet foods is causing DCM or dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that decreases the ability to pump blood.

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Channel 2′s Sophia Choi first reported about six-year-old Bailey, a German shorthaired pointer who died of DCM in 2019. Her mom said the vet blamed a grain-free diet.

“They did an X-ray and saw that her heart was really enlarged, filling up almost her whole chest cavity,” Gina Perry said in 2020.

The FDA said it received more than 1,100 reports of DCM related deaths linked to grain-free food since 2014. That is more than half of all heart related cases reported to them during that time period.

Dr. Judy Morgan is aware of the reports too. She is known around the country as a holistic pet health advocate with a popular blog.

“Well, if we look at the millions of dogs and cats that are eating grain-free diets and it is in the millions, why do we have only 1,100. It’s a very, very small percentage,” said Morgan.

She said the percentage is even smaller if you take out breeds genetically predisposed to DCM like Dobermans, Boxers, and Irish Wolfhounds.

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The FDA is looking closely at legumes like dried beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas as a possible culprit.

“Legumes are in grain and grain-free diet. But there appear to be more legumes in grain-free diets,” said Dr. Andrew Empel the co-owner of Vernon Woods Animal Hospital and a veterinarian. “Unfortunately, they don’t contain taurine which is essential for heart health,” said Dr. Morgan.

The FDA has not requested any recalls and it is not taking any compliance or enforcement action. Instead, it’s asking for patience, time for more study.

The agency sent us a statement:

“The FDA takes pet food safety concerns very seriously. Before taking action regarding a product, FDA must fully investigate complaints submitted to the agency – performing tests, inspections, and interviews before we have enough information to verify whether there is a public safety concern.

On September 29, 2020, scientific experts from academia, industry, and veterinary medicine came together to participate virtually in a scientific forum hosted by Kansas State University (KSU) examining potential causes of non-hereditary canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.

The event was a forum where scientists with research into DCM could share information, collaborate, and discuss many different – and even conflicting – theories on the condition. It is so encouraging to see the shared commitment to understanding non-hereditary DCM in dogs using multidisciplinary scientific approaches. FDA; the veterinary community, especially veterinary nutritionists and veterinary cardiologists and other specialists; industry and academia continue to examine this issue to help determine what factors may be contributing to the heart conditions observed and reported to FDA. KSU has posted materials from various presenters at the scientific forum to make them available to the public. This includes my opening remarks and a presentation by a team of FDA scientists about a subset of DCM cases that made full or partial recoveries.

The FDA is not planning to update the commonly reported brands, as the Agency is aware that several pet food companies have adjusted diet formulations since our initial announcements about DCM. The FDA have asked pet food manufacturers to share diet formulation information, which could substantially benefit our understanding of the role of diet in these cases.

The FDA’s veterinarians, animal nutritionists, epidemiologists and pathologists have been working with veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists from academia, industry and private practice to better understand the clinical presentation of the cases and potential ties to diet, such as bioavailability of critical nutrients and how well a dog digests these nutrients. The FDA is encouraged by the response of veterinary cardiologists, veterinary nutritionists, academia and industry in delving into this issue and we encourage other scientists to take part. As we look further into the role that diet may play in these cases, we hope to explore additional avenues of inquiry such as formulation, nutrient bioavailability, ingredient sourcing, and diet processing to determine if there are any common factors.

The Agency encourages pet owners to discuss their animals’ diets with their veterinarians. While we are unable to share much information during the investigative process, we will update the public, pet owners and veterinary professionals on public safety issues concerning FDA-regulated pet products.

Please reference the Questions & Answers: FDA’s Work on Potential Causes of Non-Hereditary DCM in Dogs as well as the Interdisciplinary Scientific Cooperation Will Lead the Way to Understanding of Non-Hereditary DCM for additional information.”

Meanwhile, the FDA is no longer naming grain-free pet food brands that might be associated with DCM. Dr. Morgan said your best bet is to look for whole foods on the ingredients list.

“If you see a bunch of chemical sounding stuff or things that you’re not sure what that might be run away. If I’m not willing to eat it myself, they’re not getting it either,” said Morgan.

Other vets Channel 2 spoke to advise just staying away from grain-free for now.

“If there’s any relation I just don’t see the benefit or worth the risk to have a grain-free diet,” said Empel.

Dog lover Sarah Bettura said the benefits are right in front of her eyes and on the back of the package: more whole ingredients resulting in healthier pets.

“When our vet has seen our dogs in the past, they’re just always impressed of the life expectancy and how good shape they are. So yeah, it’s not broken why fix that,” said Bettura.

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Vets said people got on the grain-free pet food craze when they themselves started eating grain-free. Those vets said what’s good for humans though may not always be good for our pets.

They stress you should always talk with your vet before making any dietary changes.

The Pet Food Institute sent Channel 2 the following statement:

“The Pet Food Institute (PFI) and our members, who make the vast majority of pet food and treats in the United States, are committed to the health of pets and take seriously our responsibility to produce safe, nutritionally balanced dog and cat food. 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.

A range of stakeholders, including PFI, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), veterinary cardiologists and the veterinary nutrition community, participated in a virtual scientific forum hosted by Kansas State University in late 2020. This event provided an opportunity for researchers to share important learnings and advance our understanding of any potential relationship between DCM and diet. During the forum, FDA CVM stated, and PFI agrees, that this is a multifaceted, complex issue with many components. FDA also clarified and reiterated that this is not a regulatory issue and that the agency has not recommended the recall of any products.

PFI urges fact-based messaging around DCM. Since its initial announcements, FDA noted that information in its investigation updates has been inaccurately misinterpreted and misrepresented. Current research suggests that a variety of factors may influence the development of DCM in dogs. Tens of millions of dogs enjoy diets marketed as grain-free in the United States and the number of submitted DCM reports suggest that, if diet is a factor, it may be among several elements involved such as individual dog physiology. A questions and answers document on this issue can be found at https://www.petfoodinstitute.org.

PFI welcomes the continued dialogue among our pet food maker members, veterinarians, and ingredient suppliers to advance the understanding of DCM and its causes.”