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.

 

 

It’s That Time of Year …

Can I please have a cookie?

Cali knows the drill by now. No breakfast. People at the vet’s office making a big fuss over her but not offering cookies, no matter how many times she helpfully points out the cookie jar that is right there under their noses. And her own nose and rumbling tummy.

They poke and prod her, take about a gallon of blood, clip her nails, and try to make her pee into a cup. She sure shows them, though. They chase her around with that huge black stick with the cup for hours. She has to stay at the vet’s office nearly all day … oh, wait.

It’s her annual physical for the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

Cali would rather be in this other study her mom just read about. The one testing a vaccine for cancer. It just started and the 800 dogs are getting shots. Half will get the experimental vaccine; half will get placebos.

This 5-year study is uses a vaccine developed at Arizona State University to target lymphoma, osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma,  mastocytomas — common canine cancers — and four other types of cancer. The idea is to inject abnormal proteins that occur on the surface of cancer cells, along with a substance to stimulate an immune response. If it works, “researchers believe the vaccine could serve as a universal defender against cancer by ‘turning on’ the immune system to recognize and defeat cancer,” according to a press release from ASU.

Those dogs only have to get four shots over a few weeks, then get regular checkups. They don’t have to pee in a stupid cup on a stick.

The Morris Study looks at dogs’ diet, exposures, lifestyle, and genetics to attempt to determine causes of cancer.

Both hope to find information that could reduce cancer in dogs, and, ultimately, other animals — including humans.

Cali doesn’t really understand the big picture. She knows the routine though. The day starts off pretty badly, but after the blood draw, she tends to get lots of treats. Who knows … she might even get some ice cream.

So Cute in that T-shirt

Cute in her post-op T-shirt

“Your dog looks cute in that T-shirt,” Cali’s little friend said. We walk past a school-bus stop every morning, and some days, we beat the bus there. Two young children, themselves owned by a handsome male golden retriever, often ask to pet Cali. “But why is she wearing it?”

The little girl who asks a lot of questions is probably around 7, her quieter brother even younger.

“She had a tiny lump on her side,” I said. “It was removed, and she has stitches, but she’s fine.”

“So the shirt protects it?”

“Yes, it keeps the stitches clean and keeps her from licking it.”

“Oh.” My questioner nodded knowingly. Her dog has had stitches too.

We chatted for another minute, until the bus pulled up.

Deni and I talk about Cali’s “quarterly de-lumping” in resigned tones. Lots of golden retrievers are little lump factories. So far, Cali’s have all been benign fatty cysts, but … she’s a golden. She’s over 6 years old. I know the statistics.

That’s why Cali is in the Morris Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Cali’s personal physician, Dr. Jani Zirbel, also has a golden in the study. He’s about Cali’s age, a tall, gorgeous boy. She always says that I can leave the lumps and see if they grow, but I like to know that they’re benign.

I know it will only be a matter of weeks until I find the next little bump. But so far, Cali is fine.

She came home from her minor outpatient surgery a little groggy from the sedative and with a tummy ache. She had not fasted and did not have anesthesia, but after her procedure, the vet techs fed her. (Cali does a very convincing impersonation of a starving dog.) Whatever they fed her did not agree with her tummy …

Other than that, she recovered quickly and was delighted to run outside in her beloved yard the next day. And she does look cute in that T-shirt.

 

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.

 

 

 

A Great Idea!

A screen shows the Tesla Dog MOde message, My owner will be back soon.

If only Cali could afford a Tesla …

Several weeks ago, Tesla rolled out a software update that introduces “Dog Mode.”

This is a feature that allows car-and-dog owners to set a cabin temperature for their dogs’ comfort while they go off and … do whatever it is people do while leaving their dogs in the car. The car’s heating or cooling system will maintain the appropriate temperature automatically. Here’s the cool part: The Tesla’s screen shows a message meant to reassure worried passers-by that the dogs are OK. It reads “My owner will be back soon” and displays the interior temperature in large numerals.

The main hitch I see is that the screen, which is usually used for the car to communicate with the driver, is positioned between the front seats. People passing by and noticing dogs in a closed car in extreme heat (or cold) may not peek in at the right angle to see the screen. They might still panic, break a window, call the cops, leave a nasty note for the owners, alert the security at the nearest store, etc.

However, this does raise a great possibility: An add-on product that could maintain a reasonable temperature in the car while displaying a prominent notice easily visible from the car’s driver and passenger windows. A solar-powered cooler that hangs inside the window perhaps? Any inventors out there? That’s a Kickstarter I could get on board with.

Seriously. Summer is coming. Don’t overheat your pups. Trade in for a Tesla today! (I wish …)

The Garden Is Going to the Dogs!

Cali, under the blossoming cherry trees, with her tennis ball.

It’s February in Montana, so reading an article about planning a “sensory garden” for dogs was a nice escape from the cold. Since Cali has staked her claim to the back yard of our house, though, and much landscaping is needed, it’s also great inspiration.

The first piece of advice is to watch how the dog uses the space — where she hangs out, where and what she sniffs. That’s easy. Cali’s favorite spot is under the cherry trees and next to the raspberries. In the summer, her favorite spot is in the raspberries, harvesting and eating as many berries as she can reach. But even in the winter, she’s most likely to be found in that corner of the garden.

Then, plan ways to enrich the garden for her enjoyment and mental stimulation. This means stimulating all of her senses.

Foremost for dogs is, of course, smell. Plant things that she enjoys sniffing. Ideally, plant several plants and flowers that will bloom and grow at different times of the year. Here in Montana, that’s a fairly small part of the year, so other senses will have to dominate in the winter.

For visual stimulation, the author of the article suggests rocks, logs, items of different heights to create variation.

To stimulate hearing, she suggests running water, wind chimes, or rustling plants. Those wouldn’t really work too well in a Montana winter either, but in our somewhat urban neighborhood, there is plenty of aural stimulation.

Cali surveys her yard from the deck
When not under the cherry trees, Cali enjoys her perch on the deck

Taste is a tough one. I have always discouraged my dogs from sampling the garden plants. Timo, my first dog, loved lemon verbena and once ate every single leaf from a small plant. The plant did not survive the assault, but Timo and the larger one coexisted happily for many years. As a puppy, Jana enjoyed harvesting strawberries and blackberries in our garden. Cali enjoys the cherries and raspberries in season, of course. But the suggestions of verbena, thyme, and other safe and appealing plants are worth considering.

Finally, tactile stimulation is essential. Cali loves to dig; I have thought about creating a digging spot for her in the garden. Another suggestion is using a variety of textures — grass, mulch (check and check) and paths made of stones or crushed granite, or even sand. We can definitely work more of that into our landscaping.

A final suggestion is creating opportunities for the dog to run around. When Cali has friends over, they do create a sort of circuit, looping into the cherry-tree corner and under the clotheslines.

Some other things to consider:

  • Know which plants are toxic to dogs and avoid these.
  • Use raised beds, pots, or plant borders to steer dogs away from no-go zones, like the vegetable patch. Interestingly, though Cali dug up all our baby tomato plants the day we planted them, she never bothered the vegetable gardens after that, even though she loves cucumbers, and the cukes were well within her reach. She quickly learned that the raised beds were my turf.
  • Consider your dog’s age and activity level. For some dogs, simple agility equipment or things they can climb or jump onto are a good addition.

The garden can be very appealing to humans, too. But too many yards are designed only for the people in the family. Since Cali spends exponentially more time in our yard than I do, it’s only fair to create a place she will enjoy fully!

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.