Dog Food Update

At the end of June, the FDA released an update on its investigation into a spike in reported cases of Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy, or DCM. This investigation and report have caused many pet owners to worry about whether the food their dogs are eating could cause heart disease.

The investigation is ongoing, and the results are not conclusive. But they do point to multiple factors, not a simple link between diet and heart disease or, more specifically, grain-free kibbles and heart disease.

The investigation was triggered by unusually high numbers of cases of DCM reported in 2018 and early 2019, a total of 320 reports in 2018 and 197 in January through April 2019. For comparison, from 2014 through 2017, the FDA received a total of 7 reports. These numbers include cats and dogs, though very, very few are cats. Since some of the reports concern multiple pets in a household, the total number of affected animals is 560 dogs and 14 cats. To provide context, it’s important to note that these 560 dogs are from a population of 77 million pet dogs in the U.S. It’s a very small number of cases, yet the spike was unusual, and I, for one, am glad to see researchers digging into this.

The most commonly affected breeds are golden retrievers (95), mixed-breed dogs (62), and Labradors (47).

The FDA report offers a lot of information, and here’s where it gets interesting. Most of the dogs affected are older, with a mean of 6.6 years; and since most are also larger (mean weight of 68 lbs.), many are considered “senior.”

The FDA report provides information about the dogs’ diet. Nearly all of the dogs ate an exclusively kibble diet (452 out of the 515 reports). The foods named, with Acana and Zignature topping the list, are all high-end foods with multiple grain-free formulas. Several of the brands named in the report are quality brands that appear on the Whole Dog Journal’s list of approved dog foods.

2019_WDJApprovedDryDogFoods

It’s unlikely that multiple high-end brands of dog food all developed the same nutritional deficiency, suddenly and simultaneously, in 2018. What’s more likely is that people started paying more attention to symptoms their dogs were exhibiting and, rather than simply attributing them to age, got them checked out. The interesting detail that many of the dogs are eating expensive dog food hints that these dogs might live with people who have the means and desire to pamper their pets a bit — just the sort of dog owners who are also more likely than the average to shell out for annual bloodwork and one- or twice-yearly senior pet exams.

A correlation the FDA is looking closely at is whether the high proportion of grain-free foods using large amounts of peas and/or lentils had anything to do with the DCM. The reported foods also contained a large variety of animal proteins, with chicken, lamb, and salmon topping the list. There are so many other variables, though, that drawing a connection between either the animal or vegetable protein sources and the heart disease is tough. For one, the millions of dogs eating those same foods who are not showing any signs of DCM. For another, it’s very rare that a dog eats one kibble and one kibble only — no treats, nothing scavenged on a walk, nothing slipped to him at the dinner table. The FDA is interviewing some owners to determine whether exposure to other things — plants, chemicals — could be a factor.

It’s possible that further study will find a connection. One area researchers are considering is whether large amounts of pea or lentil protein interferes with dogs’ ability to digest necessary minerals or amino acids, like taurine.

I don’t think panic is warranted. I also don’t think boycotting the named brands (or all grain-free foods) is justified. I do have some common-sense suggestions, though, for worried pet owners: Switch up your dog’s food.

Anyone who eats the same diet, day in, day out, for months or years is bound to have some nutritional deficiencies, especially a diet as highly processed as kibble. No one food can provide everything any dog needs. The old “advice” about not switching dog’s food and how anything new will upset their stomachs is bunk. Sure, if your dog has eaten the same kibble for 7 years and you suddenly switch to something radically different, your dog is likely to have digestive issues for a while. If your dog has a lot of food sensitivities, again, proceed cautiously. But most dogs can switch pretty easily. I usually mix the last couple pounds of a bag of an old food with the new food, giving the dog a week or more to transition.

Some manufacturers encourage switching among their formulas. I’d go a step farther and switch companies and formulas to ensure that over a year or so, your dog gets a few different proteins and formulas. They all add different mixes of vegetables, minerals, and other supplements. With Cali, I mix kibble with frozen raw food (one meal of each per day). She also gets salmon oil, a probiotic and digestive enzyme supplement, a joint support supplement, and lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, sardines … OK, so she’s a little spoiled. So?

Even if you don’t want to go that crazy, switching foods every couple of bags could give your dog some variety and a better mix of nutrients over time.

In addition, make sure your dog has regular exams and bloodwork. Raise your concerns with a vet you trust and, if your dog is showing signs of DCM, such as coughing, trouble breathing, or lethargy, get a checkup.

 

 

Advertisements

Can my dog be vegan?

Cali turns away from her food bowl and faces a fence
Cali doesn’t want to be vegan!

I’ve been asked several times whether I think it’s OK to feed a dog a vegan diet. The short answer is that dogs can survive and even thrive on a vegan diet, but it’s not easy and it’s not the optimal diet. Cats cannot be vegan, by the way.

A recent article in Wired addressed this question from the perspective of dog owners’ conflicting beliefs: They are vegan because they oppose using animals for human benefit but they also want to provide the best lives for their dogs (which means letting the dogs eat meat …). I understand the dilemma.

Premium pet food companies understand the dilemma, too. More and more, they are advertising the humane and sustainable nature of the ingredients they use. Is the advertising accurate? I don’t know; my hunch is that some companies are better than others, as with human food producers. Maybe the Whole Dog Journal will add sustainability to its list of criteria in future dog food evaluations (wouldn’t that be great?).

From a nutritional standpoint, I’d advise choosing this path very carefully. Consult with a canine nutritionist or a vet who has studied pet nutrition extensively. That is not a given; many vets take one or no courses on nutrition in vet school and many vet schools receive a lot of funding from large pet-food companies. That is to say, what many vets “know” about nutrition is heavily influenced by the makers of often not very good kibbles. I’ve gotten truly terrible nutritional advice from many otherwise excellent veterinarians.

If your vet is on board and knows a lot about canine nutrition, you can probably work out a vegan or mostly vegan diet that will work for your dog. But it’s not something to do casually; don’t just switch to a vegan food and forget about it. For example, your dog might need more frequent blood work done to test for key nutritional elements, as the recent scares over taurine levels illustrates.

One hypothesis with the many dogs showing low taurine levels is that foods with high levels of vegetable-based proteins and low or no carbohydrates made it harder for the dogs to get full nutritional benefit from the meat-based proteins in those foods. While I haven’t yet seen a definitive answer to that question, it suggests that boosting the amount of plant-based proteins in a dog’s diet has implications beyond whether she’s getting enough protein … which means going vegan or mostly vegan could have health effects that you’re not anticipating, and that even if the dog is a healthy weight and seems to be fine, serious problems could be developing.

So. The long and short answers get us to the same place, which is this: If you’re serious about moving your dog to a more vegan diet, proceed carefully and make sure you’ve got a knowledgeable vet’s supervision and guidance.

 

 

 

You Are What You Eat

Cali, a golden retriever, licks her lips in anticipation of a treat.
Feed me!

The latest pet-food scare (as if the concern over grain-free foods isn’t enough) is that several brands of dry dog food have been recalled for toxic levels of vitamin D.

The FDA first alerted dog owners in early December, and it recently updated the list of recalled foods. You know what I am going to say next: If you’ve chosen your dog’s food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list of approved dog foods, you have nothing to worry about. They do the legwork, checking out the companies’ manufacturing process, documentation of the nutritional completeness of the food, quality control, and ingredient sourcing so you can confidently purchase any food on the list. The list includes foods in a huge range of prices and formulas, and many are very easy to find at pet supply stores, feed stores, Ace-hardware-type stores, and the like. You do not have to spend a fortune at an exclusive pet boutique to get quality dog food; in fact, many of the exotic boutique foods are of poor nutritional quality.

Vitamin D is a vital nutrient for dogs (and humans). It helps maintain the proper level of calcium and the balance of calcium and phosphorus, according to PetMD. (Read the full PetMD article, Vitamin D Poisoning in Dogs, for more details.) Too much vitamin D, though can cause vomiting, weakness, lethargy, excessive thirst, urination, and drooling — and kidney failure and death.

A Whole Dog Journal article (available only to subscribers) says that in most commercial dog foods, the problem is likely to be too little vitamin D, not too much. In addition, dogs in the same household eating the same diet can have very different levels, due to differences in how their bodies absorb the vitamin. Over time, a vitamin D deficiency can cause bone disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and some researchers are studying a possible link to immune system disorders. A blood test can measure your dog’s vitamin D levels.

The best approach is to feed a high-quality meat-based food. Suggestions from the Whole Dog Journal article include adding probiotics or apple cider vinegar to the dog’s meals; avoiding alkalizing foods like corn, wheat, soy, rice, white potatoes, tapioca, and peas; and supplementing with coconut oil. It’s hard to recommend a specific combination of supplements, though, because each dog’s diet and needs are different.

The key takeaway is that what you feed your dog matters.

It matters what you feed yourself and your family, too. But each member of the family makes dozens of choices daily about what to eat and, one hopes, over the course of a day or a week, eats a range of foods that cover her or his nutritional needs. The dog does not get to make those choices, though. He eats what you give him. The dog also probably eats the same thing every day. Some dogs eat the same food for weeks, months, even years. If that food doesn’t have what the dog needs to be healthy, there’s not much chance he’ll get it some other way. So choose your dog’s food carefully — and give him some variety by changing it up every so often.

 

Update: Is Grain-Free Dog Food Risky?

Koala, a black Lab, eyes a bowl of dog biscuits.
Despite what your dog might tell you, an all-cookie diet is not recommended.

A few months have passed since the FDA scared dog-owners who feed grain-free dog foods, so the I decided that Thinking Dog blog needed to run an update.

I am grateful to veterinarian and researcher Lisa Freeman, who has written extensively on this issue. Based on some of her work, including this Dec. 1 JAVMA article, “Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?” here is what I have learned:

  • Grain-free diets are not the problem. What Freeman calls “BEG” diets — foods from boutique producers that are based on exotic ingredients and are grain-free — appear to be a common factor in many of the cases of DCM. (DCM is dilated cardiomyopathy; see the earlier post, Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free? for more info.)
  • Most dogs do not need to eat boutique foods with exotic ingredients.
  • Some of the companies producing these foods have not done thorough nutritional research and testing, and the foods are not nutritionally sound. Or their quality control might not be as good as some more conventional dog food producers, so the foods may be less consistent.
  • The problem is not only about taurine levels, either. Freeman writes that most of the dogs she’s seen (in the practice at Tufts University) with DCM have normal taurine levels. Furthermore, many improve with a diet switch (away from a BEG food), even though their taurine levels were and remain normal.
  • Owners who have moved to home-prepared diets should be extremely cautious and consult with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that the homemade diet meets the dog’s needs.

The problem does appear to be linked to nutritional deficiencies. Exactly what, though, is still unclear.

What should a concerned owner do?

  • Feed a high-quality food from a responsible manufacturer. You may be tired of hearing this, but: The best food for your dog is not necessarily the best food for my dog. Each dog’s needs are different. Your budget and what’s available in your area differs from what I can get easily. So, I am not going to recommend specific foods. I strongly urge you to choose a food from the Whole Dog Journal’s list. Their 2018 list is available; I will post a link to the 2019 list when they publish it.

Dry dog foods

Canned dog foods

  • For advice on raw foods, check out the Dog Food Advisor recommendations.
  • If your dog gets lots of ear infections, is itchy, or has hot spots or other issues that could indicate food sensitivities, consult with a vet and a nutritionist (some vets have lots of training and knowledge about canine nutrition but many do not; ask for credentials).
  • I do not recommend “prescription” diets. Many vets will recommend these. Why? They make a lot of money selling them. They tend to use low-quality ingredients and be very, very expensive. You can get a higher-quality commercial food for less money that addresses the same issue. Whether your dog needs a lower-fat or lower-protein diet, should avoid particular ingredients, whatever the issue, there are likely to be several foods in your (high quality) pet store that will work.

Should Your Dog Go Grain-Free?

A golden retriever carries her food bowl
Fill that food bowl with health, high-quality proteins and veggies.

A spate of atypical cases of a serious heart condition in dogs is raising the question of whether grain-free dog food formulas are somehow responsible. The FDA is investigating a possible link between diet and the disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dog breeds where the condition is extremely rare. DCM causes the heart to become weak and enlarged; it can cause heart failure. Symptoms include coughing, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Breeds that have a genetic predisposition for DCM include Irish wolfhounds, great Danes, and boxers. According to a New York Times article on the potential link with grain-free diets, concern was triggered when a large veterinary cardiology practice noticed an unusual number of cases among other breeds, including Labradors and golden retrievers.

There’s no definitive link, and researchers are exploring whether the absence of grains in the diet could be problematic. Another potential problem: the legumes, like lentils and peas, that are used in large quantities to replace the grains in these foods. One avenue of research is whether the legumes inhibit the production of taurine, an essential amino acid that most dogs get from the meat in their diets or synthesize from amino acids in other proteins in their diets. To do this, they need to get enough real meat protein in their diets. To further complicate matters, not all meat proteins contain the same levels of taurine; poultry has more taurine than lamb or beef, for example.

What’s a concerned dog owner to do? Choose a dog food carefully, considering only the dog’s nutritional needs and ignoring food fads. For example:

  • Choose a quality dog food brand that uses specified (named) meats and meat meals as the top ingredients. Use the Whole Dog Journal‘s list of approved dog foods, and you will not go wrong. Don’t use supermarket brands, which are full of fillers like corn and wheat (common allergens), artificial colors, sugar, and other potentially harmful ingredients.
  • Choose a protein that is right for your dog. It’s unlikely that your dog needs an exotic, and expensive, protein like kangaroo. If your dog has shown signs of food allergy, sure, try a “novel” protein — but that just means one she hasn’t eaten before. Switch from chicken to fish or duck or lamb.
  • I tend to favor foods with one or two proteins, rather than those with four, six, or more. This is simply convenience: If my dog were to develop a sensitivity, it’s easier to find a novel protein if she hasn’t been consuming lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, bison, and fish at every meal.
  • Ensure that the food has enough protein and that most or all of it is from high-quality meat sources. Many dogs do well with kibbles that are 25 percent to 30 percent protein; higher-protein foods are great for some dogs and not for others. Puppies will grow too quickly on a high-protein food. Educate yourself. Consult a vet or canine nutritionist, talk with knowledgeable experts at small pet stores that focus on high-quality foods (I’m not talking about those boutiques with a room full of doggy clothing and luxury accessories and only one or two very pricey foods), and read the Whole Dog Journal and Dogs Naturally.
  • Make sure the other ingredients in the dog food are of good quality and, preferably, sourced in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. I’ve avoided any and all food products sourced in China since the melamine and other contamination scares several years ago.
  • Pay attention to whether your dog runs hot or cold. A vet who treated Jana for many years (and who was Cali’s pediatrician) talked with me about “warming” and “cooling” foods. This turned out to be a wonderful guide to choosing proteins for my girls, who both were “hot.” Since moving to duck a few years ago, for example, Cali has not had a hot spot.
  • Don’t treat your dog like a person. I am a committed vegetarian, but I know that neither Jana nor Cali had any desire to become vegetarians. While I have no desire to go gluten- or grain-free, if I did, that would not extend to my dogs. Dogs are omnivores. Give them a balanced, varied diet, avoiding things (like chocolate) that are known to be toxic or harmful to dogs.

As to whether we should avoid the grain-free foods — the jury is out on that question. My advice would be to look at the specific food(s) you are feeding and see whether it meets the Whole Dog Journal’s criteria for a high-quality food. If so, and your dog is healthy and energetic, has normal digestive processes (translation: look at her poop) and a shiny, healthy coat and bright sparkly eyes, don’t make changes. If your fancy boutique food was selected based on the marketing copy or you’re simply following the latest diet craze, reconsider.

What does Cali eat? For breakfast, she gets a Steve’s Real Food Turducken patty. For dinner, she gets a heaping cup-and-a-quarter of Canidae Sky limited ingredient duck formula. Yup, they’re grain free. They’re also chock-full of high quality, nutritious ingredients. She also gets fish oil, joint support and digestive enzyme supplements, eggs, cucumber, plenty of cookies (not grain-free!) and coconut popsicles (ice cubes made with coconut water), and all the fresh raspberries she can reach.

Read more about the potential problems with exotic diets here: “A broken heart.”