BY AMY BAKER
Diet-related dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is not a new topic of discussion. What is unique about the current discussion is the level of concern (from all angles) surrounding certain diets and the potential impact on the pet food industry. As the manager of veterinary services for Farmina Pet Foods, the first question I am asked by retailers is: So what are your thoughts on this DCM thing, and how can I alleviate my customers’ concerns?
Despite the appearance of opposition, it is clear both retailers and veterinarians hold the same goal: maintaining the overall health and quality of life of dogs. Retailers and veterinarians have the responsibility of separating hype from fact, maintaining objectivity and supporting each other through the process.
What is specifically known at this point is that DCM is a multifactorial and poorly understood disease. Couple that with well-intended but premature data release, and you have the perfect storm. More data are required in the form of published independent scientific studies to prove a causal relationship between diet-related DCM and the inclusion or exclusion of certain ingredients.
At this time, according to the FDA and previous studies, no one specific ingredient is linked to DCM, but diet-related DCM likely develops from the interaction between certain ingredients within a formulation. Both grain-free and grain-inclusion diets are included on the FDA list of problematic foods, with the majority representing grain-free and the majority containing legumes or potatoes. The prevalence of grain-free food may or may not be a true representation given the profile of the pet owner shopping for a premium food. This pet owner is also more likely to pursue a comprehensive medical workup in the case of suspected pathology at the recommendation of their primary veterinarian. A complete medical workup includes a full blood profile with taurine levels in addition to advanced cardiac imaging if needed. These factors can contribute to a population bias with the cases reported to the FDA.
Of the cases reported to the FDA, no one protein source was predominant, with chicken, fish, eggs and lamb being the most common proteins mentioned. This contrasts with the suggestion that exotic proteins play a role. Previous ingredients or trends suggested to contribute to diet-related DCM include beet pulp, high fiber and low protein diets and lamb/rice based diets. Low metabolism has also been suggested to contribute, which may partially explain the over representation of Golden Retrievers in the current report. Of interest is the fact that European standards distinguish nutrient profiles based on activity level with lower activity dogs requiring a higher amount of certain nutrients per the same amount of food over their high-activity counterparts. This may also further lend support to the suggestion that low metabolism contributes to DCM and further explains the overrepresentation of Goldens.
As a veterinarian, I am always wary of medical opinions formed out of a media storm, and I prefer to rely on facts and scientific research. I think there is enough question to be cautious in certain scenarios, but what is currently available in terms of fact would not cause me to change my own dog’s diet at this stage. Nor does the FDA recommend a diet change. I would, however, strongly suggest to the owner of a Golden Retriever or other breed at risk for development of typical DCM (genetically based) a grain-inclusive formula for now, until legitimate research is published. And I would also recommend establishing a baseline taurine level and possible echocardiogram through their primary veterinarian if the owner is concerned.
Despite the appearance of sheer chaos at the moment, this is an opportunity for the industry. This will encourage continued scientific research and development which over time will continue to provide better nutrition and health for our dogs, provided we work together to achieve that goal.