Since July of 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration has been tracking reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy — a potentially dangerous heart condition — searching for connections to certain pet foods they now believe may contribute.
The initial warning was given by the FDA in 2018 when the study began, with the administration now releasing a list of 16 pet food brands regularly connected to more than 500 cases of the canine heart disease, most of which affected large breeds like golden retrievers, mixed breeds, and Labrador retrievers. Similar to the warning issued by the administration last summer, the FDA pointed out a connection to pet foods labeled as “grain-free,” often containing high proportions of peas, lentils, other legume seeds and/or potatoes as the main ingredients.
While the FDA is continuing to investigate all cases and their connections to a specific food, the brands named in their report were:
- Acana - 67 cases
- Zignatue - 64 cases
- Taste of the Wild - 53 cases
- 4Health - 32 cases
- Earthborn Holistic - 32 cases
- Blue Buffalo - 31 cases
- Nature's Domain - 29 cases
- Fromm - 24 cases
- Merrick - 16 cases
- California Natural - 15 cases
- Natural Balance - 15 cases
- Orijen - 12 cases
- Nature's Variety - 11 cases
- NutriSource -10 cases
- Nutro - 10 cases
- Rachael Ray Nutrish - 10 cases
So what is canine dilated cardiomyopathy, how does it impact dogs, how can owners recognize possible symptoms, and what should they do about it? Naturally, the Food and Drug Administration has advised dog owners to be in touch with their veterinarian as soon as they recognize symptoms or see the warning, knowing that their dog has been eating any of the pet food brands listed in the report. If affected, dogs will often have decreased energy, they may start to cough regularly, have difficulty breathing, and may even collapse. Meanwhile, veterinarians have been advised to report further cases they suspect may be linked to diet.
Canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), is a condition in which the left ventricle — it’s main pumping chamber — is enlarged and weakened, making it difficult for the organ to pump blood efficiently. Over time, this can impact other chambers within the heart as well, while the heart is prevented from relaxing and filling with blood as it regularly would. For humans, dilated cardiomyopathy can sometimes have no noticeable symptoms at all or minor symptoms, allowing them to live a normal life. According to research at Cornell University, there is no definitive cause of canine DCM, although the diet is considered a main influencer alongside genetic disposition in some breeds. “Breeds predisposed to DCM include the Doberman Pinscher, the Great Dane, the Boxer, and the Cocker Spaniel,” they write. “Dietary carnitine deficiency may play a role in some cases of Boxer DCM, and taurine responsive DCM has been identified in Cocker Spaniels.”
“Treatment of DCM is directed at improving systolic (pump) function of the heart, dilating the peripheral blood vessels to decrease ventricular workload, eliminating pulmonary congestion if present, and controlling heart rate and cardiac arrhythmias if present,” they added. “These treatment goals are addressed by the administration of cardiac medications, which may be delivered by injection in emergent situations, or orally in patients that are more stable.”
With the news that the FDA had placed their brand at the top of the list in links to occurrences of DCM, Champion Petfoods, which owns Acana and Orijen, issued a statement in response.
“We take this very seriously and will continue to work internally and with other industry leaders on research into the cause of DCM in order to help Pet Lovers understand the facts,” they wrote. “DCM is a serious but rare condition. Of the 77 million dogs in the U.S., 0.5% to 1% have DCM, and of those dogs with DCM, fewer than 0.1% are speculated to have DCM related to diet, although that is not scientifically proven. In the recipes Champion makes, we emphasize fresh and raw meat with total animal-derived ingredients ranging from 60 to 85 percent of the finished product. Legumes are not a significant feature in Champion's recipes, and never have been.”
The lesson in all of this, if nothing else, is that we all should give more attention to the labels of the dog food we buy. Even if you’re not consciously staying away from specific ingredients, knowing what goes into your pet’s food will be a much stronger starting point to troubleshoot health problems if they do arise. Knowing what’s in your pet’s daily diet helps vets pinpoint potential sources of risks like the recent uptick in DCM cases. Even knowing where pet foods are made is a useful tool, with a recent PetMD survey revealing that 98 percent of pet owners say they want ingredients that either come from the United States or are from other countries with similar strict standards. According to Vice President of Operations for the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and head of the ASPCA’s Pet Nutrition Services, Mindy Bough, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates “Made in the USA” claims on all products that are human or pet related. Everything from the packaging to the ingredients and production of the food must be carried through in the United States in order to earn that label, she says. And that subjecting the maker to being reviewed by organizations like the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which has very specific guidelines for the allowed percentages of named ingredients on a label, serving as another step to ensure consumers get exactly what’s on the nutrition and ingredients label.
Another good thing to be aware of, according to PetMD, is understanding the difference between a label that reads “Manufactured By” versus a label that says “Manufactured For.” A label that says “manufactured for” or “distributed by” indicates the food was actually manufactured by somebody other than the brand you’re purchasing from — a common practice by private label pet food labels, apparently. A “manufactured by” mark denotes the “party responsible for the quality and safety of the product and location,” according to the FDA. For the attentive and aware pet owner, this all adds up to both knowing exactly what’s in the food you’re feeding your dog as well as having a direct source for asking questions about their food when concerns arise. For many people, this offers peace of mind that they’re getting safe food. And if the end goal is to give the highest quality food to their pet and the most nutritious diet possible, this is a great starting point. PetMD says that the ASPCA generally won’t even recommend a generic or store brand as their first choice, supporting the idea that commercial and name brands are typically the highest in quality. Now, once you’ve learned the dietary needs of your specific dog’s breed, you have a reliable starting point for ensuring that the pup is getting the healthiest food possible.