Diet and DCM and the FDA

The below was written by me on January 2, 2020, and is my thoughts on the panic over the FDA’s report on grain-free food and Dilated Cardiomyopathy. (All text copyright Magenta Bay Poodles and requires permission and credit to repost. Linking to this page is fine.)

Everyone is aware that the FDA has released reports about an increase in cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). Within a couple of days, the press had reduced the entire report to “Grain-free diets are destroying your dog’s heart and you need to stop feeding grain-free!” and caused immediate panic in their news reports and on social media. (And continue to.) Many have vets who encourage (or demand!) that they move away from grain-free and move to one of the “big 3” brands of food with grain. So let’s talk about all of this.

First some facts and some perspective.

1. The AVMA estimates that there are 77 MILLION pet dogs in the US. Between January 2014 and April 2019, the FDA received just *515* reports of DCM. That’s only 0.0000068% of dogs!! The entire report causing all the panic, is about 515 dogs. Look again at that percentage. 0.0000068% of US dogs.
2. Dogs (lots of dogs) have been eating grain-free diets for a lot of years. There were no increases in DCM until 2018.
3. The majority of the DCM cases that were reported to the FDA are from breeds with a genetic predisposition to DCM. (Poodles are NOT one of those breeds.)
4. A full 1/5 of the reported cases were golden retrievers.
5. The majority of the diets reported by owners of DCM dogs were grain-free; however, kibble WITH grain was also reported.
6. To date, they have NO definitive answers as to what any possible increase in DCM is from. They are VERY clear about this.
7. The FDA says “…the potential association between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.”
8. The brands listed in the report were those mentioned by just TEN or more owners in the just 515 reports of DCM.
9. Almost all of the reported cases show diets high in legumes. That means diets with many legumes in the main ingredients – be that a grain-free OR a grain-inclusive diet. (Legumes are chickpeas, lentils, peas, kidney/pinto/black/soy beans, peanuts, etc.) They do not know anything for sure, but are currently investigating whether it’s the many legumes that are somehow causing the increase in DCM.
10. Taurine deficiency is well-known and well-documented to cause DCM. It was an early hypothesis that perhaps the over-abundance of legumes in some diets was somehow interfering with the dog’s natural ability to make taurine, resulting in a low level. However, when taurine levels were looked at in the reported cases who had them tested, some dogs had low levels, some normal, and some high.
11. There is some speculation that the reason grocery diets (those kibbles that can be found in a supermarket) are possibly under reported in this study is one of economics: More affluent people feed higher quality foods (which are often grain-free) and they have the means to get their dogs to the vet to be tested, while lower income people who are feeding grain-inclusive supermarket dog food do not have the same means – so any issues with their dogs don’t get diagnosed and reported. This artificially skews the results.
12. The FDA released one report with additional updates. The updates were simply to request ongoing information and reports so that their investigation remained current. The news reports often make it sound like there are multiple warning reports. There are not.

I’m not going to address the debate of whether dogs should or should not be eating grains. My own dogs are on grain-free diets and will remain on them. I HAVE dropped foods from my rotation (and from my supply list) that are heavy in legumes for now. Since we don’t yet know the answer to whether the multiple legumes could somehow be predisposing them to DCM, I’ll stick with the foods that don’t have a ton. I personally don’t think dogs should be eating the high carb diets of grain inclusive food, and I, personally, will not feed my dogs the diets made by the big 3 manufacturers. My personal feeling is that we’ve come much further in our understanding of what our dogs don’t need in their diets to be feeding foods whose first five ingredients are things like corn, wheat gluten, chicken by-products, corn gluten, soy, beet pulp, etc. At the bottom of this page are a few links that will help in understanding what those ingredients actually MEAN – what they are. If you don’t know what by-products are, for example, you really do need to before you feed it to your dog.

If you feel strongly that you want to feed a grain-inclusive diet, please know there are a few good quality ones out there that aren’t full of the stuff that many of the Big 3 brands are. They use quality grain – not the cheap fillers like corn and wheat gluten. Examples are Instinct’s Be Natural, Nature’s Logic, and Stella & Chewys’ Wholesome Grains kibble. The latter is pea-free and lentil-free. (Links to all are on my Supply List page if you want them.) Please do educate yourself about ingredients and what they are – your dog needs you to.

And a final word about me and about vets. No – I am not a vet nor a canine nutritionist. I don’t pretend to be. I have the highest regard for a veterinarian’s ability to handle medical issues in our dogs. But do know that most are NOT trained extensively in nutrition. As I understand it from vets themselves, there is precious little time spent on nutrition in veterinary school. As in maybe one class, often sponsored by one of the big pet food companies. I am NOT saying they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m saying unless they are veterinary nutritionists, they are not heavily trained in nutrition. Do I mean ignore your vet’s advice? Absolutely not. What I passionately want you to do is educate yourself, research, and weigh it all out so you arrive at a decision and a balance you are educated about and comfortable with.

To sum up: The entire grain-free panic is based on a teeny, tiny, percentage of dogs. The FDA investigators themselves say that they do not yet know what caused the sudden increase in reports of DCM but that it’s likely a complex issue with multiple things contributing to it. They also say clearly that it’s *not* just grain-free diets being reported, it’s grained diets too. Regardless of which type diet you choose, it seems prudent at this point to limit the amount of legumes until they know more.

In the FDA’s OWN words: “It is 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. 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.”

Important Links – do check them out:

A Guide to Understanding Dog Food Ingredients
What’s Really in Pet Food
The Sickening Truth About Pet Food