Veterinarian warns of dangers from a grain-free dog food diet after FDA study

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched a study in July of 2018 into dog foods that could be causing health problems for dogs. Nearly a year later, the investigation is still ongoing.

The FDA launched a study in July of 2018, into dog foods that could be causing health problems in dogs.

Doctor Maureen Ward, with Harrisonburg Animal Hospital, said that the study looks at "BEG" diets. The acronym stands for boutique, exotic ingredients and grain free. Boutique foods are from smaller companies not usually found in larger pet stores, with a brand that may be unknown or unrecognized.

Exotic ingredients are usually the protein and Dr. Ward said most commonly include kangaroo or bison meat. Grain free foods are made from peas, legumes or potatoes.

"There's no medical background or research that proves that grains are an issue in dogs, so really you shouldn't be paying extra for a marketed grain free diet. You're serving no benefit to your animal by feeding that," said Dr. Ward.

Dr. Ward said the concern for boutique foods is that they are smaller companies and may not have a board-certified nutritionist on their team. She said that without a board-certified nutritionist, there is no guarantee that the food has a balanced diet that supports all life stages of an animal.

The FDA got involved in this study when vets began to see dogs contracting dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) that would not normally have it. Dr. Ward described DCM as making the heart like a loose balloon. She said the heart develops an inability to contract properly and then it cannot move blood properly.

The FDA is looking to see if there is a correlation between BEG diets and DCM. She said they refer to this kind of DCM as "nutritional DCM," although if there is a correlation it does not necessarily mean it results in causation.

Certain breeds of dogs are prone to developing DCM, including but not limited to: dobermans, boxers, great Danes and Irish wolfhounds.

Dr. Ward said the authors of the study originally thought that the foods lacked an amino acid called Taurine. Dogs need Taurine in the muscle of their hearts to make sure they can contract.

Now, the study has moved to a different hypothesis which looks at the potential for a toxicity in diets that are affecting the heart muscle or that the legumes, potatoes or peas are blocking the body's ability to use Taurine.

She said that 90% of dogs with DCM have adequate Taurine levels, so a dog's blood sample may look appropriate but the dog could still have "nutritional DCM."

There are certain signs to look for if a dog may have DCM: coughing, exercise intolerance, increased respiratory rate and general lethargy. Dr. Ward said if your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms to have them examined by a vet. The typical diagnosis procedure would lead to x-rays and an echo-cardiogram to look at the dog's heart.

Dr. Ward said that a vet may put dogs who are experiencing these symptoms on medicine for heart failure and recommend taking the dog off of the BEG diet.

Dr. Ward said that it is common for dogs to maintain heart failure, then move to congestive heart failure, and eventually die from the suspected nutritional DCM. She did say if it is caught early enough, it is possible to supplement with Taurine or change to food with grains. She said it can take months or years for the symptoms to reverse in a dog.

Dr. Ward claimed there have been suspected cases at Harrisonburg Animal Hospital, but it is impossible to conclude until the study is completed. She blamed pet food companies' marketing strategies and pet food stores for recommending foods with no scientific evidence to back up health benefits.

She suggested pet owners question the pet food companies they are purchasing from. Dr. Ward said to ask them if they have a board certified nutritionist, ask for a breakdown of nutrition and for studies.

"You have the right as a consumer to question. If you feel as they're giving you a run around answer, that's your answer."

Dr. Ward said that if a dog does have an allergy to food, it is most likely to the protein source or meat in the diet. She said to see a vet and discuss allergies and treatment options.