Do grain-free diets really cause canine heart disease?

You may have heard that on July 12th, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a statement that it was investigating a potential connection between grain-free diets and canine heart disease:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is alerting pet owners and veterinary professionals about reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients. These reports are unusual because DCM is occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease. The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network, a collaboration of government and veterinary diagnostic laboratories, are investigating this potential association.

Canine DCM is a disease of a dog’s heart muscle and results in an enlarged heart. As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump, and heart valves may leak, leading to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen. DCM often results in congestive heart failure. Heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification, if caught early.

The underlying cause of DCM is not truly known, but is thought to have a genetic component. Breeds that are typically more frequently affected by DCM include large and giant breed dogs, such as Great Danes, Boxers, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards and Doberman Pinschers. It is less common in small and medium breed dogs, except American and English Cocker Spaniels. However, the cases that have been reported to the FDA have included Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, a Shih Tzu, a Bulldog and Miniature Schnauzers, as well as mixed breeds.

Full text of the FDA statement here.

Investigating possible links is always a good thing; but equally concerning is understanding what data backs up any claim.

Pet Business magazine points out that the data backing up the link is very thin – at this point unlikely to pass the rigor of a peer-reviewed journal.  Obviously an industry body has concerns about the impact of consumer choices  and the impact on sales, but it is right that they point out that the data set so far is quite limited.

I follow research regularly, and I’m always open to findings that may cause us to re-think our choices of food and other healthcare strategies for our dogs.

But let’s be sure about evidence.

The availability and variety of grain-free foods has increased dramatically in recent years, as cases of itchy dogs and dietary intolerances caused by corn and wheat have been documented.  Who’s to say that grain-free carbohydrates like peas, lentils and potatoes might not also come with side effects?

And all of this debate reinforces my belief in the hybrid diet.  Sometimes raw, sometimes kibble, and sometimes homemade.  Diversification is a strength!

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

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