“Helch, ih icch hilw haaw, unheroooah.”

Dentists do have a way of asking you questions when they have their hands in your mouth. But, they also have the talent of seemingly understanding your answers. Thus my “discussion” with Dr. T. sounded a lot like this and he seemed to follow along. He asked me the question that seems to be on every dog owner’s mind lately:

“Is the heart thing with the dog food real? And, what should I be feeding my dog?”

To which I say, with a mouth full of dentist fingers, “Well, it is still not understood.” Without the dental assist, I can answer with clearer speech, but not necessarily a clearer answer.

Is the heart thing with the dog food real? Yes, I think it is real. So, let’s break that down a bit.

What has been noticed, first by veterinary cardiologists, is that there are a greater number of dogs presenting with a heart condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy or DCM. This is a condition where the muscle of the heart gets stretched and less effective at pumping blood, which can lead to heart failure.

DCM is not a rare condition in certain breeds, so veterinarians are good at finding it in those breed., Cardiologists are used to seeing those dogs, mostly large breed dogs like Dobermans and Great Danes, and some smaller breeds like spaniels. But, what the veterinary cardiologists started noticing was larger numbers of dogs in breeds not typically found to have DCM, presenting with the disease. Wanting to investigate what was happening, the dog owners were given questionnaires about many different things related to their dog’s lifestyle.

The one common denominator for the dogs was the diet. The atypical dogs presenting with DCM were fed diets that fall into the “BEG” category, that is “Boutique, Exotic, Grain-free” foods. Also, it seemed there was a higher number of these dogs that were on diets that were legume based, lentils or peas for example, or potato based diets. Keep in mind that at this time there is no proof of the link or understanding of the exact cause.

Veterinarians with a long memory, or a good recall of vet history remember a similar occurrence back in the 1980’s, when many cats were being diagnosed with DCM. A clever veterinarian at UC Davis, Dr. Paul Pion, found that he could reverse the disease by adding taurine to the cat’s diets. In 1976 taurine was recognized as an essential amino acid for cats, but until Dr. Pion’s discovery, the level in cat foods was lower. Since 1987, commercial cat foods have all added sufficient taurine to the food, decreasing the incidence of DCM and other taurine deficiency issues in kitties.

So, for the dogs being presented, changing the diet from a “BEG” diet to a commercial diet by “the big nutrition companies” (we will discuss), and supplementing taurine had a positive effect on the DCM dogs. That being said, we don’t know exactly what factors are leading to increased numbers of DCM diagnoses.

Let’s jump ahead to the second part of the question; “What should I be feeding my dog?”

For years, as Veterinarians, this question has been asked over and over and over, and frankly, we don’t know enough to tell you exactly what to do. The explosion in the last 20 years of interest in dog nutrition has led to large pet stores filled with choices, and internet “experts” giving advice. I clicked on Amazon, and they offer over 2000 choices of dry dog food, and over 1000 choices of canned! Who can keep track of them all? This influx of interest is, in a way, great! Nutrition is important and experimenting is one way we come up with real solutions to health challenges in our pets. We learn things we did not know before, like… DCM happens more frequently in dogs on BEG diets. But correlation is not definitive research. Future nutrition choices will be guided by a more developed understanding through scientific research.

At this time, it seems that dogs being fed diets by the large pet food companies that employ board-certified veterinary nutritionists to formulate their foods and perform nutritional testing are having the least reported risk of DCM.
Examples of these companies are; Hills, Purina, Iams, and Royal Canin.

“What do I do if I am worried my dog has been on a diet that could lead to DCM?”

Firstly, come see us! Tell us your concern. Let us talk about your dog’s risk factors with you and steps to take to diagnose, if there is a problem. Your vet will listen to your dog’s chest and may recommend some testing to assess if there is a problem. The tests could include blood tests, radiographs, or a cardiac ultrasound of the heart.

Your vet will then recommend current therapies to address the diagnosed disease. These therapies are dynamic as we learn more about the cause. Right now, recommendations may include a diet change and possibly supplementing taurine, as well as heart medications for some cases. Follow up testing will be recommended to monitor the progress of your dog.
If your dog is on a special diet for other health problems such as allergic disease or diabetes, please consult with your veterinarian and together decide if diet change is necessary, and what to choose.

Meanwhile, the veterinarians at Gahanna Animal Hospital will continue to monitor what is happening with diet and DCM, and follow the recommendations as we learn more.

In six months, I will try to give my dentist an update: “Ah hink ihs unher honhrol ow.”