When the FDA issues warnings about pet food, pet parents may begin to worry if the food they are providing their animals is safe. It’s a scary thought to think that our furry family members could be in danger. In the FDA’s third and most recent report, they issued a warning about the possible link between grain-free pet food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease.

As pet lovers ourselves, we care about the well-being of all dogs and cats and wanted to understand what the FDA’s warning on grain-free pet food means for our families and yours.

Background on the FDA’s most recent report

Cat and dog hanging out on the bed

The FDA has been investigating the cause of the surge in canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, many of which are not usually predisposed to the disease. DCM is a life-threatening disease that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood. It often ends in congestive heart failure. Certain breeds are predisposed to DCM such as the Doberman Pinscher, the Great Dane, Irish Wolfhound, and the Cocker Spaniel. The FDA received a few reports of DCM as early as 2014, but the majority of reports came in July 2018 after the FDA notified the public about the potential link of DCM to a pet’s diet.

The FDA first alerted the public about a potential link between a pet’s diet and DCM in July 2018, then followed up with an update in February 2019 that covered investigative activities through November 30, 2018. In the FDA’s third and most recent status report published in June 2019, they found a potential link between grain-free diets and DCM. The connection between grain-free pet food and DCM is still under investigation. It is important to note that the cause of DCM has not yet been verified.

Which animals are affected?

This potential link between DCM and a pet’s grain-free diet is especially concerning because grain-free options make up almost half of the dog food market in the United States. The data in the graphs below were collected from January 1, 2014, to April 30, 2019.

Number of animals in DCM reports

Source: FDA

Even though the investigation centers on the potential connection between diet and cases of Canine Heart Disease, both dogs and cats are involved in the related FDA reports, which started in 2014. The FDA received substantially more reports from dog owners, but we cannot forget about our furry felines.

Dog breeds most frequently

Source: FDA

*Additional dog breeds were reported that are not included in this graph.

Some dog breeds were more represented than others. Golden Retrievers had the most cases, with 95 being reported. The Golden Retriever might be the most represented because it is one of the most popular dog breeds in the United States, according to the American Kennel Club. Also, the FDA recognized that Golden Retriever-specific social media groups and activities have raised awareness on the DCM issue for Golden Retriever owners and encouraged owners and their vets to submit their cases to the FDA.

Mixed dog breeds and Labrador Retrievers were the next two most reported dog breeds, at 62 and 47 cases respectively. Reports can still be made through the Safety Reporting Portal or by calling your state’s FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators. If you have any additional questions about reporting cases of DCM, the FDA has an article on how to report a pet food complaint.

Which dog food brands have been reported?

Dog food with dog

While the following dog food brands have been reported for possible links to DCM, it’s important to remember that they are still under investigation, which means the cause of DCM has not been proven yet. If you’re thinking about changing your dog’s diet, consult your veterinarian.

Dog food brands most frequently reported to the FDA for DCM

Source: FDA

Dog food formulations in DCM reports to FDA

Source: FDA

Acana was reported the most with 67 DCM cases. Zignature and Taste of the Wild had the next two highest number of reports, 64 and 53 DCM cases respectively. Dry food formulas were reported more often than other formulations across brands.

Owners must pay attention to how their pet’s food is affecting them. Symptoms to look out for are decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing, and episodes of collapse. These signs could indicate DCM or another heart condition. If your animal has any of these symptoms, take them to the vet right away.

Brown poodle looks at camera

Does the warning only pertain to grain-free pet food?

Ingredients or characteristics of reported diets

Source: FDA

So, what’s in the reported pet food? There seem to be some common threads. While the vast majority of the reported pet food is categorized as grain-free, it’s not the only food under investigation. Some of the reported food contains grain. There is some speculation as to what is causing the DCM. Is it the new main ingredients used to replace the grains (such as peas, lentils, potatoes, etc.)? Are the animals’ nutritional needs not being met? Was the ingredients’ quality poor? The conclusions remain unclear while tests are still being run, but the FDA believes multiple factors might be involved.

What does a veterinarian think?

Here’s what Dr. Keith Norberg from Danada Veterinary Hospital has to say about the warning:

We’ve preached for years and years that there is no medical benefit to grain-free. It’s completely brilliant marketing by whoever came up with it. There is no science behind it. A traditional grain diet is completely safe, completely nutritious. It has all the things in it that a dog requires. There is nothing detrimental to feeding a diet that has corn or soy or wheat or any of the traditional grains. With that being said, they’re still learning as they go. The one thing they’ve cautioned about is diets that are rich in grain substitutes that are legumes. So, lentils, beans, peas, things like that. Those diets are having more of a deficiency in amino acid that we’ve known for years is the leading cause of dilated heart disease in cats. A lot of these grain-free options are becoming deficient. There may be more to that than just the amino acid deficiency. But so far, that’s what they’ve cautioned people against. Make sure that your diet doesn’t have a large number of those carbohydrate sources (lentils, beans, peas, etc.) leading the way on the ingredient list. So, I usually have been steering people back towards more traditional grains. Unless you have a sensitivity to one of those grains, there’s no reason not to feed them.

My argument for all foods, not just this instance, is if you’ve got a food that is meeting AAFCO standards, which is the feeding council that indicates what needs to be in a diet, and you can afford that food, your dog is eating it well, and your dog is doing well on it, I don’t change a thing. What we’ve learned from this is that the best way to make sure your food truly meets those standards is to find a diet that is meeting those standards through feeding trials. On your ingredient label, you’re going to see a note that says, “This diet is formulated to meet the standards set forth by AAFCO.” If it’s formulated, they’re doing it off of mathematical equations. They’re not studying their foods. If it’s done through feeding trials, they’re feeding it to these dogs and then testing to make sure that all those nutrients are showing up in their bodies. The safest route for people to take is to look for diets that are studied by feeding trials.

The only thing that has a government mandate, and is required to be legitimate on the package is “all-natural.” If it says all-natural, it means they add nothing to the diet except for minerals and vitamins. Beyond that, everything else is marketing. There is no standardization of that. When they say grain-free, you can have grain-free that has grain in it.

How did grain-free pet food get popular in the first place?

Pug at grass park

In 2007, pet foods were recalled by the FDA when the wheat gluten in pet food from a particular Chinese supplier had been contaminated with melamine. Melamine is an industrial chemical that should not be an ingredient in any animal or human food. With this recall, some people began to fear grain in their pet’s diet, which sparked a greater need for grain-free pet food.

People began accusing pet food companies of saving money by using grains. Pet owners saw grains as inexpensive fillers in the dry food. They wanted better for their fur babies. The grain isn’t a filler, though. It’s beneficial for your pet’s diet. These plant-based proteins help complete all the amino acids your pets need. The public looks at grains with unsubstantiated disdain. For example, corn gluten meal sounds like something you don’t want in your pet’s food, but it provides three times the amount of protein as chicken. Corn gluten also includes fatty acids for healthy skin, coat, and immune system. On top of that, it contains a variety of vitamins and antioxidants.

While grain allergies for pets are rare, people were worried about these types of allergies. Some pets need a grain-free diet due to allergies, but owners began to feed their non-allergic pets grain-free food as a precaution. When people began to cut grains out of their own diets, gluten-free and low-carbohydrate diets increased in popularity. This was during the same period that grain-free pet food became popular. Pet owners began to implement their dietary choices for themselves on their pets.

What should we feed our pets now?

Dog held by woman in winter

If you and your vet agree to change your pet’s diet, here are some tips from Dr. Norberg to consider:

  • Look for food that has been tested by feeding trials, not just formulated.
  • Choose food that meets AAFCO
  • Pay attention to how your dog is responding to the change in diet.

One of the best ways to make sure your pet’s diet is healthy is to know what goes in it. Consider learning how to read a pet food label.

Always consult your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet.

If your dog or cat has DCM and you suspect it to be linked to your pet’s diet, the FDA suggests to send a report through the Safety Reporting Portal or to call your state’s FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators. If you have any additional questions, the FDA has an article on how to report a pet food complaint.

If you’re worried about your pet’s food, you can keep up to date with recent food recalls on the AVMA site.

To save on vet visits and more, consider dog insurance. In a few quick clicks, you can get a free quote from Prudent Pet.