Author: Jordan Eller
On June 27, 2019 the FDA released an update on its original reporting surrounding their investigation behind the causes of increase cases of DCM in pets. For some background, DCM is an acronym for dilated cardiomyopathy, a debilitating heart condition that results in less blood pumping through an animal’s body. The FDA report relates specifically to canine DCM and the possible (yet completely unproven) links between DCM and certain types of grain-free diets.
The Facts at Hand
Before reacting based on sensationalized news cycles that will likely arise from this announcement, it is very important to look at the facts at hand. The most recent statement directly stated, “It’s important to note that the FDA doesn’t yet know how certain diets may be associated with DCM in some dogs,” and “thus far, the agency believes that the potential association between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors.”
The most recent FDA update included a list of 10 brands that had 10 or more reported cases since 2014. The lowest of which being Rachel Ray Nutrish with 10 cases, and the highest being Acana with 67 cases (roughly 13 cases per year). While DCM is notably a heartbreaking disease, the FDA acknowledges that it is not particularly uncommon, and has been known to affect larger dog breeds.
In a recent article Dr. Alexia Heldman, director of veterinary affairs for Diamond Pet Foods, which owns Taste of the Wild (one of the brands listed in the investigation), said in a telephone interview, “Over the last year, there have been a lot of theories …. Where we are now, there are more questions unanswered than there were a year ago.” Heldman also noted that Taste of the Wild is the largest brand of grain-free food, sharing that 29 million bags have been sold in the U.S. since September 2017.
Reading Between the Lines
Most of the brand names on the list are certainly not national pet food brands, instead they’re mostly more holistic-focused boutique companies offering natural ingredients. It is beginning to seem as if this might not be a total coincidence.
Big, national brands have a vested interest in discrediting grain-free alternatives and smaller brands that might threaten their market share. These companies have an incentive to encourage sensationalism around studies such as this DCM report that by its own admission does not establish a direct DCM/grain-free link.
It’s Not Time to Panic
The link, at this juncture, isn’t substantiated through science and the issue warrants much more study. Here are a few reasons why:
- DCM is a complex disease and the FDA’s own content says the exact cause is “unknown.” There’s a mix of hereditary breed factors, as well as possibly diet, taurine levels, and other conditions that make a dog more or less prone to the disease.
- We don’t know enough as an industry about dog and cat nutrition and its correlations to pet health. These types of studies are still in their infancy, and any “conclusions” drawn should be taken with a large amount of skepticism.
- The FDA’s study does not draw any conclusion such as “grain-free foods cause DCM.” They suggest a possible connection to some grain-free products only, and suggest a call for more study.
- Some dog’s taurine levels might vary due to their own ability to digest protein and make it bioavailable. They might also have varying levels of gut bacteria that can play a role in taurine, and possibly DCM prevalence. Additionally, many grain-free formulas add supplementary taurine to diets to mitigate this issue.
DCM is a devastating disease for pets and their owners. Some dogs show signs of lethargy or other symptoms, but many only show its effects shortly before succumbing. More study into the disease is ongoing and pet scientists are digging more risk factors and produce definitive answers about causes.
Only time will tell if big pet brands will ramp up additional marketing efforts to discredit grain-free diets. But I firmly believe in the health benefits our nutritionally-sound grain-free products for pets with specific dietary needs.