According to Linda Carroll at NBC News Washington, in 2018, the FDA made an announcement regarding a potential link between grain-free pet foods and a condition that could cause heart failure. Grain-free food generally is made by replacing grains with ingredients such as lentils, peas, or potatoes.
Debbie Turner’s Story
One pet owner named Debbie Turner was shocked when her veterinary specialist advised her that her beloved six-year-old dog was suffering from severe heart damage. His symptoms included breathing problems, fainting spells, and fatigue. Other symptoms can include weight loss and, in some cases, a cough. Debbie is actually among a growing number of dog owners who are discovering that their dogs’ healthy-sounding pet food could somehow have led to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which is a severe heart problem. Dogs with DCM start developing an enlarged heart that begins struggling to function properly. The affected dog can then end up developing congestive heart failure and that can be fatal.
Possible Nutritional Deficiency
According to Maggie Fox at NBCNews, dogs who have been fed “grain free” foods have been developing the condition. It’s a condition that tends to be more commonly occurring in certain breeds, however, it has been also turning up in other breeds not normally susceptible to it, according to the FDA. They also stated that it could just boil down to a nutritional deficiency.
Ingredients More Important Than Brands
The FDA hasn’t named any specific brands yet and stated that the actual ingredients appeared to be much more important than those particular brands. However, they did state that the affected dogs seem to have eaten specific pet food types. According to Dr. Martine Hartogensis of the FDA, they are investigating the potential link between those foods and DCM and are encouraging both veterinarians and dog owners to report any DCM cases that affect dogs not already predisposed to that particular disease. Their heart function could improve in some cases not genetically linked but would need to be caught early and paired with dietary modifications and appropriate veterinary treatment. Dietary Changes for dogs with DCM need to be made in consultation with licensed veterinarians.
A Genetic Predisposition
The FDA also stated in their NBC News story that certain canine breeds tend to have a genetic predisposition to DCM, including:
- Cocker Spaniels
- Doberman Pinschers
- Great Danes
- St. Bernards.
According to Maggie Fox at NBCNews.com and her interview with the FDA, Taurine deficiency could be a potential explanation. It’s an amino acid and a protein building block, which is absolutely essential for carnivores. In fact, Taurine deficiency has been well-documented as a potential cause of DCM.
Genetic or Multifactorial
According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, DCM is a primary cardiac muscle disease resulting in decrease in the heart’s ability to continue generating the necessary pressure for pumping blood throughout the vascular system. The actual definitive cause of DCM in dogs is the subject that has been widely debated. Several mitigating factors, which include genetic, nutritional, or infectious predisposition have often been implicated. The fact that DCM in dogs appears to occur at a much higher rate in certain breeds suggests that the disease has an inheritable genetic component. On the other hand, it appears likely that DCM’s etiology is more than likely to be multifactorial. In addition, a carnitine deficiency in the dog’s diet could play a significant role in certain cases of Boxer DCM. In addition, Taurine-responsive DCM has been found in Cocker Spaniels.
Clinical Signs of DCM
DCM can be characterized by ventricular dilation and wall thinning. In some cases, the dilation of the four chambers of the dog’s heart can be seen. The ability of the dog’s heart to keep pumping is severely diminished. At that point, clinical DCM signs are occurring secondary to either congestion of blood in the dog’s lungs (abdominal distention, coughing, increased respiratory effort and/or rate), a decrease in delivering oxygenated blood to the dog’s body (collapse, lethargy, weight loss, and/or weakness), or both. Cardiac dilation, increased oxygen demand, and decreased oxygen supply resulting in ventricular wall stress and an elevated heart rate may lead to developing cardiac arrhythmias. This can present in either the ventricles (ventricular tachycardia or ventricular premature complexes) or atrial (supraventricular tachycardia or atrial fibrillation). Unfortunately, Arrhythmias could predispose an affected dog to sudden death.
Diagnosis of DCM
DCM is generally diagnosed by using echocardiography. This can demonstrate the indices and chamber dilation related to the characteristic of decreased pump function brought on by this disease. In addition, Thoracic radiography can prove very useful for evaluating pulmonary (lung) tissue as well as the vessels. It could also show any evidence of the accumulation of fluid in the lungs (i.e. pulmonary edema) or around them (i.e. pleural effusion). Electrocardiography can also be utilized for characterizing the dog’s heart rhythm and for ruling out arrhythmias. In some cases, a 24-hour electrocardiogram could be recommended for a more accurate characterization of cardiac rhythm.
Treatment of DCM
Treatment is usually directed at the improvement of the systolic (pump) function of the dog’s heart, dilation of the peripheral blood vessels for the purpose of decreasing the ventricular workload, elimination of pulmonary congestion (if present), and controlling the dog’s heart rate and/or cardiac arrhythmias (if present). Those treatment goals can be addressed administering cardiac medications. Those medications can be delivered via injection at the start, or orally when the patient is more stable.
Prognosis For Dogs With DCM
DCM can prove to be a disease in dogs that is truly devastating. The prognosis for those dogs varies depending upon the dog’s status at the time of presentation as well as his or her breed. The prognosis for Dobermans can be less favorable than it is for some other breeds. On the other hand, DCM in Cocker Spaniels can progress relatively slowly. A canine patient who is in congestive heart failure will usually have a much poorer prognosis than one who is not in congestive heart failure. However, medical therapy could end up providing significant improvement in the quality of life and overall lifespan in an affected dog.
Report Any Suspected Cases of Dietary DCM
Now that you know a bit more about DCM, it’s important to also be aware that the FDA is encouraging both veterinary professionals and pet owners to report any cases of canine DCM that may be suspected of having a dietary link. This can be accomplished by using the electronic Safety Reporting Portal. You can also contact the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators in your state for online guidance on reporting pet food problems.