"Your dog's food may be linked to canine heart disease," was a recent headline that could make any dog owner's heart skip a beat.
Similar stories stoked panic in the dog world this summer after the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine issued an unusual warning.
It updated an investigation into a possible dietary link to a small increase in reports of dogs falling ill with a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
In June, the FDA had taken the unusual step of publicizing some — but not all — of the brands of dog food that were mentioned in a small number of case reports. This bizarre announcement is even more troubling given that the FDA has been clear that it did not find actual causation between DCM and any specific diet or ingredient, let alone a link to specific brands.
The FDA received a spike in reports of DCM after a non-peer-reviewed commentary in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) which speculated about a link to "boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets ingredients in grain-free kibble." The article was written by a group of authors led by a Nestlé-backed researcher. That association is significant.
The $91 billion global pet food market is dominated by Mars Petcare and Nestlé Purina, which together account for approximately 70% of pet food sales in North America.
The lead author of the article, "Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?", veterinarian Lisa M. Freeman, later admitted the piece caused confusion. In fact, it was so rife with conjecture that the authors had to concede that the association between certain diets and DCM "may be spurious."
They also admitted that they sought "to increase awareness of this issue among veterinarians." There's nothing wrong with that. But it might explain the subsequent increase in reports (rather than genuine occurrences) of potentially diet-related cases of DCM.
Further, some of the cases reported to the FDA may have been driven by veterinarians working for Mars Inc., which, according to a separate JAVMA article, "has emerged as the top corporate owner of veterinary practices. The privately held company known for M&Ms as well as Pedigree, Iams, and Nutro pet foods has dramatically grown its Petcare subsidiary with acquisitions such as Banfield, BluePearl, Pet Partners, and most recently VCA, purchased for $9.1 billion in September 2017."
It makes one wonder whether the tail is wagging the dog food scare.
The FDA's move has increased already percolating concerns among independent canine nutrition experts — not so much about whether certain dog food brands are causing a surge in cases of DCM (we don't know that there is one), but rather whether pet food goliaths are back to their old tricks, using their influence to protect market-share by manufacturing fear among dog owners.
Consider some context from my own experiences.
Ever since 2011, when I got my dog, BB, a Labrador Retriever, I've been given some questionable advice from key influencers about what to — and not to— feed him. Before I took him home, his American Kennel Club-affiliated breeder sternly told me that he is only to be fed Purina Pro Plan for his entire life. The kibble is one of the more expensive pet-food lines available from Nestlé Purina, a major sponsor of the American Kennel Club. The specificity of that advice made it fishy.
BB has enriched not only my life, but the lives of hundreds of others we've volunteered with as a registered therapy animal team. We got our start with the Delta Society, now called Pet Partners, which in 2009 received a commitment of $400,000 from Nestlé Purina. To be eligible to participate, I was required to certify that I was never to feed BB any raw meat whatsoever, because it posed a deadly risk to the humans we work with. BB's vet found the requirement preposterous.
For unrelated reasons, we have since registered with New York Therapy Animals and participate in the R.E.A.D. program through Intermountain Therapy Animals, one of the premier therapy animal organizations in the country.
BB has also become a working dog, where we are a certified strike team with NATIONAL Crisis Response Canines. NATIONAL's highly-trained human/canine teams deploy at the request of federal, state and local government agencies as well as organizations such as the American Red Cross to provide psychological first-aid to first responders and survivors of traumatic incidents throughout the United States. NATIONAL does not forbid raw meat.
These serious organizations, as well as their insurers, are confident that raw food diets do not endanger those we assist. None of them is funded by Nestlé.
So while I rarely stray from Purina Pro Plan and, despite his protestations, I don't tend to give BB raw meat, I've become a skeptical consumer of dog nutrition advice.
Therefore, when I started seeing sketchy ads on Facebook warning about DCM and dog food, my hackles went up immediately.
There are legitimate unanswered questions about whether there's a link between DCM in dogs and their diets. Canine nutrition expert Linda Case lays it out clearly in her analysis for Whole Dog Journal. Case cautions that "rather than disparage one class or type of dog food (or pet food company), it is more important to look at specific dietary factors that may be involved in DCM in dogs."
Instead, the FDA's singling out of certain brands without scientific justification has made matters worse. Claudia Loomis of Cherrybrook Premium Pet Supplies told Pet Product News, "There is still a lot of misinformation and misconception. Most customers are telling us their vets told them to get off of grain-free food."
The director of nutritional wellness for a retailer in Pittsburgh, PA said that some customers have referred to the FDA's announcement as a "recall." Who could blame them?
'According to canine nutritionist Case, although there could be a connection between the formulation of some dog foods and DCM, the data don't support that conclusion because of the very low number of reported incidents. Case broke down the details on NPR's Dog Talk podcast, pointing out that only 202 of the 515 cases in the FDA's second report have been confirmed as DCM, and of those, we don't know whether those cases had other causes, such as breed predispositions or viral causes, both of which are known to lead to DCM.
Ninety-five of the incidents were Golden Retrievers, which are genetically predisposed to DCM. Perhaps we will learn that there's a dietary role in such cases, but as Case warns, "that's different from saying a healthy dog with a healthy predisposition is at risk from DCM because they ate food with peas in it." She says that the FDA's statements have led to the "perception of a huge problem that is possibly just increased reporting" or the lumping together of different causes.
I'm no advocate for raw food or grain free diets for most dogs. But there's reason to believe that market-leaders may be using their clout to turn legitimate scientific inquiries into unfounded scares, and then manipulating the FDA to do their dirty work.
The time has come for Congress to put the FDA on a shorter leash. An oversight hearing is in order to ensure that as the agency continues its inquiry, it stays within its mandate to use science, rather than speculation, about the causes of anecdotal — and possibly manipulated — reports about canine DCM.