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July 2, 2019
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Is Your Dog’s Food Breaking Her Heart? An Inside Look at Grain-Free Diets and Heart Disease

In July 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was investigating reports of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods. Many of these reports included small or medium-size breeds not typically known to develop DCM. If your pet is eating a BEG diet (i.e., a diet that includes boutique, exotic, or grain-free foods), you may want to reconsider your food choice to avoid its potential link to heart disease.

What is a BEG diet?

A BEG diet has three components:

  • Boutique diets, which are manufactured by small companies that often do not conduct food trials or invest in a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, and may instead opt to fund flashy marketing campaigns to appeal to pet owners
  • Exotic diets, which are formulated with exotic meats, like kangaroo or squid
  • Grain-free diets, which have exploded in popularity due to extensive marketing and which play on the low-carb diet fads in human nutrition; these diets include potatoes, peas, lentils, and other legumes instead of the commonly used corn and rice

These three pet-food types are popular with pet owners due to marketing that plays on the shift in human diets toward healthier, low-carb options. However, animals do not digest food like people and have different nutritional requirements. Your pet’s diet should be based on her specific needs and follow the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s nutrition guidelines.

What is canine dilated cardiomyopathy?

DCM is a genetic condition diagnosed in large- and giant-breed dogs, such as Dobermans, Great Danes, Irish wolfhounds, and boxers, that causes heart muscle weakening and enlargement and can lead to congestive heart failure and death. The first sign of DCM is often a heart murmur or arrhythmia your family veterinarian hears during a routine physical exam. As the disease progresses, your dog may display the following signs:

  • Exercise intolerance
  • Increased breathing rate and effort
  • Coughing
  • Sudden weakness
  • Fainting
  • Abdominal enlargement due to fluid accumulation

Regular check-ups are crucial to allow your veterinarian to catch this disease in the early stages and to promptly treat your dog’s heart condition. If your pet has been eating a boutique, exotic, or grain-free diet, schedule an appointment for an evaluation of her heart function.

How are BEG diets and DCM linked?

The link between diets containing legumes and exotic meats and DCM is still unclear, but research continually exposes new theories. Here’s what is currently known:

  • More DCM cases are being seen in dogs who have been eating BEG diets, but they are only a small portion of the dogs eating these diets.
  • Some DCM cases are believed to be due to a deficiency of taurine, an amino acid found in animal protein only and not in plants.
  • Taurine deficiency is not the cause in all DCM cases. Many dogs have normal taurine levels in their blood, which may indicate an absorption issue. Minimal research has been performed on exotic ingredients, and whether the taurine from an exotic meat is absorbed when combined with legumes is unclear.
  • Some dogs with DCM and normal taurine levels improve with a simple diet change, which suggests a different nutrient deficiency or even a toxicity related to BEG diets.
  • Problems with BEG diets may be due to incomplete nutritional research. Smaller companies do not have the resources to test the foods and ensure quality control. More studies are needed to determine how processing affects foods and how ingredients, especially exotic ones, interact and affect absorption.

What if my pet has a food allergy?

Many owners do not understand their pet’s food allergies and believe the myth that their pet is allergic to the corn or grain in the diet. Pets are much more likely to have an issue with a food’s protein source. The most common allergens in pet foods include:

  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Fish for cats

Pets with a chicken or beef allergy may do better on a novel protein diet, such as one that uses duck or venison. Always carefully examine the ingredient list on a duck-based food, because poultry by-products or chicken fat often are hidden in the list. Over-the-counter foods are also a concern because most are manufactured in a plant that makes other foods as well, leading to cross-contamination.

The only foods completely free from animal protein contamination are prescription diets using hydrolyzed proteins. During manufacture, one round of the hydrolyzed diet is processed and disposed of, with the second round then deemed free of potential contamination and packaged for consumption. This process helps explain why hydrolyzed diets can be costly. Although chicken causes most food allergies, hydrolyzed protein diets often feature chicken or soy protein, but hydrolysis breaks down the protein source into small molecules that the body does not recognize as an allergen and they bypass the immune system.

What should I feed my dog?

Since the link between grain-free diets and heart disease is still not understood, pet owners are advised to switch pets from grain-free foods, unless the benefits outweigh the risks.

Brands that have documented cases of Nutrition related Cardiac Disease:

Acana, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, 4Health, Earthborn Holistic, Blue Buffalo, Nature’s Domain, Fromm, Merrick, California Natural, Natural Balance, Orijen, Nature’s Variety, NutriSource, Nutro and Rachael Ray Nutrish.

Brands that have not had any reported cases:

Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, and Purina Pro-Plan

For pets with known food allergies, a hydrolyzed protein diet is recommended.

So now what?

The main take away is, while we do not know the exact mechanics causing heart disease in these canines, it’s likely best to remove them from BEG diets. True clinical studies will take awhile before we get information from them. Also remember the dogs affected are likely still a low percentage of dogs eating BEG diets, so while we are concerned, we are not panicking about this information. If you have any further questions, please contact your veterinary professional.

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One Responses

  1. Robert Corman

    Please take a moment to view all sides of these concerns from dog food companies like Zignature and many more, this is just one response to the mis-information being put out there….truthaboutpetfood.com
    On June 27, 2019, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) issued its
    third status report on its investigation into any potential connection
    between certain diets and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a type of
    heart disease, in dogs. While DCM impacts less than one percent of
    U.S. dogs, with .0007% being supposedly related to diet, we recognize
    that these studies are of critical importance to those families whose
    beloved dogs have been afflicted by this heart diseases.

    As you review the FDA’s most recent report, it’s important to
    understand the following:

    · The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that
    there are 77 million pet dogs in the United States. Most dogs in the
    U.S. have been eating pet food without apparently developing DCM.

    · The FDA continues to believe that the potential association
    between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may
    involve multiple factors and that the actual cause has still yet to be
    determined.

    · Among all the cases from all brands that were reported to the
    FDA, the overwhelming majority of impacted dogs belonged to breeds
    genetically predisposed to DCM, a disease that was first discovered in
    the 1980’s well before the grain-free diets were available for pets.

    · The DCM cases reported to the FDA included dogs who ate both
    grain and grain-free diets.

    · The FDA states that chicken is the number one protein of
    affected dogs, as you know, Zignature does not use chicken. The FDA
    also stated that no one animal protein was predominant, refuting the
    earlier claim that this issue is caused by exotic proteins.

    · The FDA issued the June 27th update, even though it has no
    definitive answers yet, to solicit additional reports from pet owners
    and veterinarians to help further it’s investigation.

    To further efforts to fully understand these cardiac issues we have
    created a dedicated customer care line. We encourage our customers or
    their veterinarians to call (888) – 897-72-07 6:30 am – 3:00 pm PST.
    This company was founded out of a passion and commitment to pet health
    and we care deeply about animals. We continue to invest in our own
    research to ensure we continue to make the safest and highest quality
    pet food on the market today.

    FAQ

    What is Canine DCM?

    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, which can lead to a
    buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen (congestive heart failure).
    DCM is prevalent in certain breeds, especially larger dogs.

    How do I know if my dog has DCM?

    Please contact your veterinarian to determine if diagnostic tools such
    as echocardiograms are deemed prudent for your dog. If your dog is
    showing possible signs of DCM or other heart conditions, including
    decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing and episodes of
    collapse, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.

    Is this an issue only for boutique brands of dog food?

    No. The pet food advocacy website, the truthaboutpetfood.com, has
    taken a close look at the data that the FDA has released and found
    that the FDA received a significant number of DCM reports from the
    largest pet food producers.

    Is there a link between exotic proteins and DCM?

    Based on the most recent data released by the FDA, and contrary to
    previous speculation, that does not seem to be the case. Most of the
    cases (more than 50%) reported to the FDA were for foods containing
    chicken, lamb and salmon.

    How does Zignature formulate its food?

    Our meticulously designed diets have been formulated by a
    thought-leading team of veterinarians, PhD animal nutritionists and
    veterinary research scientists to deliver the safest pet products on
    the market that exceed the industry’s AAFCO guide for balanced and
    thorough nutrition.

    Has Zignature been contacted by the FDA? Are you cooperating with the agency?

    We want to do all we can to help the scientific community determine if
    there is any tie between a dog’s diet and dilated cardiomyopathy. We
    intend to share any data we collect through our customer care line
    with the FDA to help further their investigation.

    Why are you continuing to use legumes in your diets?

    Millions of dogs that suffer from severe allergies from gluten are
    able to live healthy lives because of grain free solutions like
    Zignature. As no one has been able to determine if or what the
    association may be between a dog’s diet and this rare cardiac
    condition, we believe it’s important that we continue to serve the
    millions of dogs that thrive on our diets.

    We remain confident that the pet products created by Zignature’s
    expert formulation team of veterinarians, PhD animal nutritionists and
    veterinary research scientists deliver the safest and most nutritious
    dietary standards available today. Our diets have always included
    taurine through meats and fish in all our products, which is important
    given that taurine is a meaningful nutrient dogs are sometimes unable
    to synthesize naturally. While taurine has always been included in our
    diets, new studies have shown that extra taurine is important for dogs
    cardiovascular health. Zignature further supplements all of its diets
    with extra taurine and L-Carnitine, providing some of the highest
    level of taurine available in the industry.

    Zignature Statement in Response to FDA Findings

    June 27, 2019

    Our company was founded by pet parents who have a passion and
    commitment to pet health. Our meticulously designed diets have been
    formulated by a thought-leading team of veterinarians, PhD animal
    nutritionists and veterinary research scientists to deliver the safest
    pet products on the market that exceed the industry’s AAFCO guide for
    balanced and thorough nutrition.

    While the vast majority of our customers thrive with our high quality,
    grain-free pet formula, we are taking the FDA’s recent announcement
    very seriously.

    As such, we have created a dedicated customer care line (888-897-7207
    6:30am – 3:00pm PST ) so we can understand more to further ensure the
    safety of all pets. As the FDA said in it’s release, it still does not
    have enough information to fully understand these cardiac issues.

    Any pet owners or veterinarians who have information on this matter
    are strongly encouraged to contact our dedicated customer care line
    backed by our team of veterinary experts and nutritionists. Ensuring
    the health of all our pet customers continues to be our top priority.

    Communication on the DCM concern and the current facts

    June 7, 2019

    We are committed to pets being their happiest and healthiest

    Zignature was created 8 years ago by pet parents with a passion and
    commitment to make the highest quality, most nutritious and safest pet
    food on the planet. Our goal and devotion is to continue to formulate
    the world’s safest pet food products that are nutritionally strong and
    provide a path for pets to be their happiest and healthiest.

    Meticulously designed diets by a team of veterinary research
    scientists and nutritional experts

    Interest in dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs and the ongoing FDA
    investigation into the long-standing pattern generated questions for
    us at Zignature and our valued pet parents. Our desire is to
    communicate our thoughts on the ongoing FDA investigation and share
    with pet parents, like you, the immense confidence we have in our
    meticulously designed diets formulated by Zignature’s thought leading
    team of veterinarians, PhD animal nutritionists and veterinary
    research scientists. Since the founding of our company in 2010, our
    products are exactingly formulated by this team to deliver you and
    your pets the safest, most nutritious pet products on the market and
    meet standards far above the industry’s AAFCO guide for balanced and
    thorough nutrition.

    Taurine levels in Zignature products are some of the highest in the industry

    We remain confident that the pet products created by Zignature’s
    expert formulation team of veterinarians, PhD animal nutritionists and
    veterinary research scientists deliver the safest and most nutritious
    dietary standards available today. Our diets have always included
    taurine through meats and fish in all our products, which is important
    given that taurine is a meaningful nutrient dogs are sometimes unable
    to synthesize naturally. While taurine has always been included in our
    diets, new studies have shown that extra taurine is important for dogs
    cardiovascular health. Zignature further supplements all of its diets
    with extra taurine, providing some of the highest level of taurine
    available in the industry.

    The FDA is not advising any dietary changes

    The FDA’s most recent position is that DCM is scientifically complex
    and likely involves many components. The majority of factors talked
    about include long-standing genetic predisposition (largely in golden
    retrievers), appropriate diet of essential nutrients, and the ability
    for nutrients to be synthesized by a dog’s physiology. In the most
    recent FDA update on 2/19/19, it said “The reports include dogs that
    have eaten grain-free and grain containing foods, and also include
    vegetarian or vegan formulations. They also include all forms of
    diets: kibble, canned, raw and home-cooked. This is why we do not
    think these cases can be explained simply by whether or not they
    contain grains, or by brand or manufacturer.”* The FDA also said, “At
    this time, we are not advising dietary changes based solely on the
    information we have gathered so far.”

    Thus, the FDA is not advising dietary changes based on the data it has
    gathered. From our own internal studies and the conclusion of many
    experts in the industry it appears that the real cause for the
    increase in DCM in dogs could take years to be discovered.

    In parallel with the FDA investigation, our own third party internal
    studies found no link between our high quality pet food products and
    any of the other physical characteristics that correlate to DCM.

    DCM was discovered 18 years ago in 2001 before 21st Century grain free diets

    DCM is not a new problem with dogs. The connection between diet and
    DCM in dogs was first discovered in a paper published in the Journal
    of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2001.12 cases of DCM
    described in the paper were collected between 1997 and 2001, years
    before grain-free dog food became available and popular on the market
    this century.

    We have great confidence in our naturally sourced grain-free diets

    As we continue to have great confidence in our naturally sourced diets
    that meet the needs of dogs who suffer from allergies and grain
    intolerances, we are providing an exclusive line designed by our
    expert formulation team that is nutritionally sound and
    grain-inclusive. We feel as a partner to pet parents, it is important
    for us to listen to and understand our valued extended family, and
    offer a variety of pet food that most aligns with the needs of your
    pet family.

    We will continue to do whatever it takes to keep your pet safe.

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