Doubts intensify for dog owners, vets about grain-free pet food after FDA report

Eli Caouette, left, and Trevor Kramer pose with William, a three-year-old miniature Schnauzer, in a handout photo. There are new warnings from the FDA about certain brands of grain-free dog food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Trevor Kramer MANDATORY CREDIT

TORONTO - Dog owner Trevor Kramer says his heart skipped a beat when he learned his pooch's premium kibble might be linked to a serious heart condition.

His go-to label, Acana, tops a list of 16 brands the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says may be associated with a greater risk of canine dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. His miniature schnauzer's preferred poultry-heavy flavour, Light & Fit, is linked to at least two reported cases.

The news happened to coincide with Kramer running low on kibble, so the Vancouver pet owner took that as an opportunity to switch three-year-old William to Acana's 50-per-cent fish variety — but he wonders if it's safe to stick with any premium brand at all.

"We invest in a high-quality, more expensive dog food assuming that we're giving our dog the best food available," says Kramer, a vegan who'd prefer to cut all meat from his dog's diet.

"When you see a story like this your heart sort of skips a beat because it makes you wonder: Would he be better off on a cheap supermarket dog food versus this supposedly higher-quality, grain-free boutique brand?"

The FDA's latest update has intensified doubts about grain-free diets, which the federal agency first raised as a concern a year ago when it began looking into a possible food link to the deadly heart condition.

Among 515 reported cases of DCM were breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease, with the FDA noting, "the common thread appears to be legumes, pulses (seeds of legumes), and/or potatoes as main ingredients in the food."

Any possible link is described as "a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors" and the FDA does not suggest avoiding certain brands or diets.

Nevertheless, some veterinarians encouraged a cautious approach until more is known.

"If you're seeing peas or lentils in those first five ingredients, then that diet has a significant amount of legumes and you may want to avoid it," says Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury of St. John's, N.L., who adds that concerned pet owners should consult their veterinarian before switching food.

Toronto veterinary cardiologist Dr. Regan Williams agreed, also dissuading pet owners from boutique and "exotic diets" that might include unusual ingredients. Several of the affected brands featured kangaroo or bison meat.

"Out of an abundance of caution right now we're saying maybe avoid those things until we figure out exactly what's going on," says Williams, who works at a downtown Toronto emergency clinic.

For two years, Kramer's go-to kibble has been Acana, a high-protein, low-carb brand manufactured by Edmonton-based Champion Pet Foods. On June 27, the FDA said it was associated with 67 reported cases of DCM, the highest number among the brands mentioned. Another Champion brand, Orijen, was linked to 12 reported cases.

Champion counters on its website that the FDA "provides no causative scientific link between DCM and our products, ingredients or grain-free diets as a whole."

"Our own research, and the millions of pets who have thrived by eating our food over 25 years, have shown that Champion pet foods are safe," the company states.

Martha Wilder, executive director of the Pet Food Association of Canada, stresses the preliminary nature of the study and suggests Acana likely has a large market share, "so it's understandable that theirs might be reported more often."

The FDA acknowledged as much in its report, noting the prevalence of DCM cases among grain-free dogs might correlate to the fact "these products have become exceedingly popular over the last several years."

And the FDA doubts the cases can be simply explained by whether or not dogs eat grains, or by the brand or manufacturer involved — complaints were also linked to diets with grains, albeit "significantly fewer" than those tied to grain-free diets.

Still, the study has put scrutiny on a pet food trend that has become especially fashionable in recent years.

Dr. Sarah Dodd, PhD candidate and Veterinary Nutrition Resident at the University of Guelph, says there's actually no scientific reason to avoid grains, crediting any perceived esteem to industry marketing.

Dodd links the diet's rise in popularity to a now common advertising approach that posits man's best friend as a carnivorous animal.

"The predecessor of the dog did consume a meat-rich diet in many geographical locations, however the domestic dog, as part of their evolution and domestication, developed an increased ability to digest and utilize plant-derived nutrients such as carbohydrates," she says, adding that grain-free pet owners wanting to switch to grains should make sure to transition gradually, just as they would with any other diet.

More importantly, Dodd suggests concerned pet owners have their dog in for a health check, noting DCM does not pop up overnight. If a dog is happy, healthy and responding well to their food, chances are slim they would fall ill from their diet alone, she suggests.

Newfoundland vet Brown-Bury pegs the grain-free push for pets to a concurrent high-protein, low-carb diet trend among humans.

"Over time, human health trends bleed into pet health trends," says Brown-Bury, recalling a cranberry craze among people that led to an abundance of cranberries in pet food.

Of course, specific ingredient sensitivities or allergies mean some dogs may benefit from grain-free diets, she acknowledges. But she questions whether cutting grains for other dogs is really helpful.

"These people that make the switch to grain-free and say their dog has a shinier coat and has better poop — is that because they were feeding a low-quality diet and moved to a high-quality diet, rather than (because of) the lack of grains?" she says.

"It's kind of like when someone says, 'I became so much healthier when I became vegan.' Is it because you became vegan or were you eating a lot of processed and fast food and now you're eating a lot more whole food and the lack of meat isn't really significant?"

Industry advocate Wilder says no one should be "making a panicked decision" about changing pet food without consulting a vet, and she stresses her industry's commitment to safety.

"We're in the business of producing safe, healthy food and everybody wants to understand if there is a link. If so, is it a formulation link? Is it an ingredient list link? Is it a physiology link? Exactly what is it?"

DCM causes the heart to enlarge and have difficulty pumping, sometimes causing heart valves to leak and leading to congestive heart failure.

Other brands mentioned in the statement include Zignature (with 64 cases), Taste of the Wild (53), 4Health (32), Earthborn Holistic (32), Blue Buffalo (31), Nature's Domain (29), Fromm (24), Merrick (16), California Natural (15), Natural Balance (15), Orijen (12), Nature's Variety (11), NutriSource (10), Nutro (10), and Rachael Ray Nutrish (10).

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