DCM, the FDA, and What We’re All Ignoring
Posted on July 10 2019
By Dr. Gerald M. Buchoff, Veterinarian and CEO of Longevity Raw Pet Foods
The news media and the pet industry have been buzzing about the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) investigation into the connection between grain-free diets for dogs and the incidence of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The possible link between grain-free pet feed and disease has incited panic among consumers and many of my clients have been reaching out in search of new ways to healthfully feed their dogs. With the FDA investigation continuing, we don’t have clear cause and effect data to make solid conclusions as of yet. However, the very investigation sparks an important discussion about the quality and appropriateness of the food that we offer to our pets and raises awareness about how broken the pet food industry really is.
First, a little background: One year ago (July 2018), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerted the public to reports they had received about dogs who were fed a grain-free diet developing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease in which the heart chambers become enlarged, making the heart unable to pump efficiently which leads to the heart valves leaking and the lungs and abdomen building up fluids, a condition called Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). The dog with CHF may experience cough, difficulty breathing, weakness, fainting, collapsing, or even death.
Most of the cases of pets involved were eating dog foods labeled as “grain-free” that contained peas, lentils, chickpeas, beans, other legume seeds (pulses), sweet potatoes, or white potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, starch, fiber, or protein derivatives) as main ingredients (listed within the first 10 ingredients). The odd thing about these cases is that many of them were in breeds not previously recognized to be genetically prone to the disease. This report has been updated in February and again in June of this year although conclusions are still forthcoming.
At the crux of the problem in the vast majority of the cases reported to the FDA is the deficiency of amino acids in the diets of these dogs. Essential nutrients such as Taurine and the two amino acids that the dog’s body can use to manufacture its own Taurine - namely Cysteine and Methionine – were at low levels in these “grain-free” fed dogs.
For many years, commercial pet foods have been manufactured with corn, soy, wheat, rice, barley, or other grains because they serve as cheap fillers. These bulky grains reduce the cost for the manufacturer over the higher-priced proteins. However, as consumers have become more educated about species-appropriate diets, there has been an increasing demand for dog foods made without grains. Indeed, dogs do not need – nor do they thrive on – grains. The problem is, however, not just with grains but with starchy carbohydrates in dog food. By replacing grains with other fillers – legumes, potatoes, or peas, for example - commercial pet food manufacturers seem to have worsened the nutritional deficiency of their products in response to consumer demand. Grains and legumes are both poor sources of taurine, so swapping one out for the other is not a remedy to the bigger question we are all failing to ask: What is the best, species-appropriate diet for my dog?
Let’s take this opportunity to address the issue head on: Pets don’t need grains or starchy carbohydrates and they shouldn’t eat them. High carbohydrate diets lead to obesity as well as to metabolic and autoimmune diseases like diabetes, arthritis, allergies, and cancer. While the research being done on “grain-free” diets and DCM is certainly valid and worthwhile, I believe that more attention should be on what we SHOULD be feeding our pets, not what we shouldn’t.
In my own 38 years of practice as a veterinarian, I have spent a great deal of time researching the connection between nutrition and wellness and like many pet owners, I firmly believe that raw, fresh, wholesome species-appropriate ingredients are exactly what pets need. Both dogs and cats thrive on meat/protein-based raw diets that offer complete and balanced nutrition. Our pets benefit when their food is consumed in its natural state and is not sterilized. Raw, unadulterated food offers good beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes that are a very important part not only of the pet’s nutrition but of their overall immune system. Your pet’s food should also include not only the meat of the animal, but tissues from many or all animal organs. From the science of glandular therapy, consuming organ meats offers healing to the whole body of the pet. Even more, we can serve our pets’ immune system with the inclusion of functional superfoods, such as green tripe for probiotics and garlic for immune system support, to truly maximize their wellness potential. These functional ingredients can also help to protect the body from bacterial, fungal, and viral infections.
While I fully support the efforts of the FDA to investigate any possible links between grain-free diets and DCM (or any other conditions of disease), I strongly advocate more research on the benefits of an ancestral, species-appropriate diet to foster longevity in our pets. I hope that the silver lining here is one that brings greater consumer awareness to raw feeding and more visibility to those manufacturers and retailers who are striving to offer pet families the products that they deserve.