Dog owners call for more research on grain-free foods after FDA report

Calgary pet owners say they're confused about what to give their dogs and call for research on boutique, exotic and grain-free diets, following an FDA report that links certain brands to a potentially life-threatening heart condition for dogs.

Majority of product labels indicated foods were 'grain free' or contained peas and lentils

Ralph Dunphy, who owns two puppies, says he buys a grain-free formula and worries whether it's healthy for them. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Ralph Dunphy says the more he reads about the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration's report that links 16 dog food brands to a potentially deadly heart condition in dogs, the more he gets confused. 

The majority of the mentioned brands feature grain-free products.

Dunphy, the owner of two boxer-bouvier cross pups, Perseus and Hercules, buys a grain-free formula from a company not on the list, yet he worries about whether it's healthy or not.

"It gets really confusing really fast because some say you can't use potato, others say you should use potato. It's back and forth, and for the consumer, it's a guesswork. We need science," he said.

Fellow dog owner Britany Tong agrees.

"I would like to see more proof or more studies about that to show that it actually is true — just because there are so many different articles out there saying different things. So it's hard for us to decide what to believe and what not to," said Tong, who was interviewed at the Bowmont off-leash dog park with her seven-month-old Labrador retriever named Snoopy.

Tong says that so far, she hasn't bought any of the brands of dog food listed in the FDA's report, but now she says she won't.

"I mean, you never know, right? Just in case, just to be sure."

The FDA issued an update in June of its ongoing investigation into a potential connection between dog diets and a disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). 

DCM is a disease that causes the muscle wall of a dog's heart to thin, weakening the organ and making it harder to pump blood. Congestive heart failure, a buildup of fluid in the chest and abdomen, can result. Affected dogs may seem tired, lose weight and suddenly collapse.

The FDA first alerted the public it was probing a potential link between diet and DCM in July 2018, noting that the agency was receiving reports associated with breeds not typically prone to the disease.

But this latest update included, for the first time, 16 brands named most frequently in reported DCM cases.

Of the dog-food brands on the FDA's list, 91 per cent of the products were labelled grain-free (did not contain corn, soy, wheat, rice, barley or other grains), while 93 per cent contained peas, lentils (including chickpeas and beans), or potatoes (including sweet potatoes).

The FDA does not suggest avoiding certain brands or diets, and said any possible link "is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors."

Anxious customers

Since then, some Calgary dog food stores say they've been bombarded with questions about these brands and the increasingly popular grain-free diets.

And they say some customers even want to switch their formulas as a result of the FDA report.

"Yes, we've had many people inquiring about it and whether they should be concerned, said Christine Nurse, owner of Fairplay on Kensington Road N.W.

"But the list that the FDA published, it wasn't very comprehensive," she said.

Pet store owner Christine Nurse says customers at Fairplay Pet Supply have been asking about an FDA report linking grain-free products to a potentially deadly heart disease in dogs. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Nurse says her store provides customers with whatever information it has about the disease, and grain-free products, but in the end, it's up to the customers to decide what works best for their pets.

Nurse says the store will continue to carry all these brands and grain-free products.

"I don't think there is anything really to be afraid of. I think actually this is good, for people to become aware of what DCM is," said Nurse.

Jill Taylor, who owns Atomic Dog Boutique in northwest Calgary, sells two of the brands on the list but says she's never had any problems with those products.

But she says some customers are now anxious about what to do and whether to switch from a grain-free diet, because their pets have allergies or sensitivities to other foods.

"The majority of my customers have stayed where they are. We've only had three of them who've said, 'no, I'm taking them off right now,'" said Taylor.

"I'm not happy because it's caused a fear in the dog community without having a proper study done," added Taylor.

Better safe than sorry

University of Calgary instructor of veterinary medicine Rebecca Archer says she can understand the confusion out there.

But first of all, she says, the FDA's report is not a study, it is a reporting mechanism much like what happens when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency receives reports of illnesses from eating lunch meats or romaine lettuce and then passes on those warnings or recalls.

And so Archer agrees followup studies need to be done.

But in the meantime, she says, dog owners should consider taking a break from these potentially harmful diets until more is known — especially since it's already been shown, in some cases, that a dog's health improved once their diet was switched.

"Why not be safe, if there is an alternative that is good for your pet and safe for your pet, until we know more? There's a potential danger here and it's heartbreaking when your pet is the one that has the issue."

When asked what she would recommend, Archer says it would be diets that are backed up by science and research, which usually means those made by a larger pet food company such as Purina, Hills, Eukanuba and Royal Canin.