Ask Ellen Addresses The Grain Free Diet Dilemma

We have fielded a lot of questions over the grain free diet dilemma. Here are some FAQ’s regarding the issues raised regarding grain free diets and their possible connection to cardiac disease:

Should I change my dog’s diet?

There simply is not enough information out there to justify making a change if your dog has had a physical exam in the past year, has no murmur, and is otherwise in good health. The internet has gone wild with this and headlines suggest if you feed your pet “grain free” it will develop heart disease. This is simply not true.

If your dog is on the list of breeds prone, and in an abundance of caution, it would be a good time to open a dialog with to have a physical exam with your veterinarian (check heart and lung sounds) and discuss options. If your dog is doing well on a grain free diet consider running a taurine level on plasma and whole blood. If there is enough interest we will run samples and batch them to the lab which would lower the cost of shipping and handling. Currently, our cost for the test is $230 (the lab bills us this amount for shipping and handling) There is a $25 blood draw fee. With enough interest we may be able to batch samples to bring the costs down. Samples can only be shipped Monday through Wednesday so that they arrive at the lab frozen/chilled for analysis. If you have more questions, make an appointment to discuss your pet’s specific risk factors and whether taurine supplementation is indicated.

What led to the FDA issuing an alert in July of 2018?

The FDA was alerted by cardiologists who reported DCM in dogs eating grain free diets and they are exploring whether there is a potential link between feed these diets and the development of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The disease is more commonly seen in certain breeds and they are investigating after seeing DCM in some breeds not genetically prone. There were reports that included 30 dogs and 7 cats. Since alerting the public, 150 cases have been reported. Out of the millions of animals eating grain free this does not seem to be a lot. The FDA released the information to the public early before a definitive connection was understood. They are hoping that it will alert clinicians to be on the lookout for cases in their clinics. They are hoping that “data” from the clinics will help with the investigation. This is nice to know but wouldn’t it be better if academia was involved?

What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy and what breeds are at risk?

Oversimplifying somewhat, it is a disease where the canine heart muscle weakens and the heart enlarges and leads to heart failure. It can be precipitated by drugs (Adriamycin a chemotherapy agent) or a deficiency of taurine or carnitine, or even a virus such as parvo. . Breeds that have a known predisposition likely have a genetic component. It is not known whether it is a defect in the structure or metabolism cardiac muscle. The disease has been reported in Dobermans, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Danes, Portuguese water dogs, Saint Bernards, Bull mastiffs, German Shepherds, Newfoundlands, Scottish Deerhounds, and Golden Retrievers. A nutritional cardiomyopathy has been reported in cocker spaniels, boxers and Dalmatians on prescription diets for prevention of urate stones. It has been found that the disease in cocker spaniels and Dalmations can show improvement when taurine is supplemented but sometimes relapses can occur even with supplementation. Response to taurine supplementation in other breeds has not been proven. Boxers have a form that responds to carnitine supplementation. So clearly there is a lot we still do not understand.

What are the symptoms that were reported?

Decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing, and episodes of collapse.

What ingredients are implicated?

Diets containing legumes, peas, lentils and potatoes (both sweet potatoes and regular potatoes). Interestingly, these are the majority of carbohydrate sources that have been added to pet food since gravitating away from wheat, corn and soy products.

What is the FDA doing to investigate?

Per the FDA website: “The agency has also been in contact with pet food manufacturers to discuss these reports and to help further the investigation. In addition, we are analyzing information from case reports submitted by pet owners and veterinarians. We will continue to work with all of these stakeholders to help advance our ongoing investigation.” My concern is that they are working with the “stakeholders” i.e. the pet food companies. Do you wonder if the companies that lost a lot of revenue by not being able to use less expensive feedstuffs such as wheat, corn and soy might be happy to see people get away from “grain free”? And if you sold “grain free” would you be the one doing the research to prove that it should not be fed to your pet? Hopefully, funding will come to do these studies at the veterinary schools.

Is my pet’s food on the list?

At this time the FDA is not releasing any of the names of the diets to consumers. Just that they contained legumes or potatoes. Some have reported that the Acana Pork and Squash Singles diet, Nutrisource grain-free food, and a kangaroo and red lentil diet. Truthfully, very few people that I know of feed these specific diets.

Could it be the population of clients visiting the cardiologist is skewed?

A visit to the cardiologist is not inexpensive. The average visit runs $500 or more. Could it be that a visit to the cardiologist selects for a population of dogs in households that have the disposable income to afford premium grain free diets? More pets are being fed grain free so wouldn’t the population of dogs on these diets increase? If your dog is slowing down maybe the pet store salespeople suggested a premium grain free diet?

“Ask Ellen”

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