Veterinarians and the Food and Drug Administration are warning pet owners to be careful when choosing grain-free and other boutique dog foods or do-it-yourself dog diets.
Over the past several years, researchers have established a correlation between a specific kind of heart disease and exotic diets. The dog foods or diets in question often are grain free, contain exotic meats or no meat at all and substitute ingredients like peas, lentils and other legumes or potatoes for grain. Such commercial dog foods often are made by small companies that don’t have a history of detailed and long-term diet-testing studies.
While the correlation between dilated cardiomyopathy — enlargement of the heart — and the boutique diets is strong, the precise way such foods or particular ingredients may lead to the disease has not been established. In some but not all or even most cases, Pamela Lee, a cardiologist at the Washington State University Veterinarian Teaching Hospital at Pullman, said dogs with diet-associated DCM have a taurine deficiency.
“We don’t know the actual cause or the ingredient in the diet that is causing the heart disease or if it’s an interaction of ingredients,” Lee said.
She said not all grain-free dog foods or diets have the correlation. Instead it tends to be associated with smaller manufactures with a short history of food-testing trials. Marketing of such foods as healthy attracts dog owners to the brands that veterinarians place under the acronym BEG — boutique, exotic ingredient, grain free.
Lee likens it to marketing of human food that promises to deliver clean and healthy eating.
“People look at their pets and consider their pets family members. You want the best thing for them, and if you think the best thing for you is to eat a clean diet, it’s an easy mental jump that ‘I want to feed that to my dog as well,’ ” she said. “Dogs, as much as we love them and consider them family members, are not small people from a physiological standpoint, from a medical standpoint.”
Dogs have evolved over time to eat a specific and complicated balance of ingredients. Lee recommends choosing a dog food company that has been around for decades and has conducted extensive feeding trials of generations of dog lives.
“We do have dog food companies that have been around for decades and have been feeding their dogs for generations, and so have a lot of data about how dogs do on these diets. They collect and use it to modify their diets.”
Lee recommends dog food brands that follow World Small Animal Veterinary Association, or WSAVA guidelines. Charlie Powell, a spokesman for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, recommends that people look for labeling that includes the terms “complete and balanced” and “tested in feeding trials” on the packaging.
Powell said putting together a diet for a dog that gives it all the nutrients it needs is “incredibly complex.”
“For people who think they can just perceive what a canine should be eating and because they think it’s good and will be good for their dog, that is not necessarily the case. They should be consulting with a veterinarian or a vet nutritionist,” he said.
When diet-responsive DCM is caught early, Lee said it is often reversible by changing to a different dog food. The college recommends that people feed their dogs food from a “well-established manufacture” that uses chicken, beef, rice, corn and wheat.
If a dog has a medical condition requiring a different diet, the college again recommends going with food made by an established company that has undergone testing by Association of the American Feed Control Officials. It also recommends consulting with a veterinarian.
For dogs that have been diagnosed with DCM and are eating a nonstandard diet, the college recommends switching to a traditional diet, to have the dog’s taurine levels tested and to follow a veterinarian-prescribed regimen of heart screening. More information is available at http://bit.ly/2GnaEgA.
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