MEET OUR VOLUNTEERS
Thank You for Visiting Our Volunteers Page!
This is our mantra for dogs affected by diet-associated heart disease and their loving owners:
For those who have left us, we mourn;
For those who are fighting, we embrace;
For those who are here, we advocate;
And for those who don’t know, we educate.
written by Jenn Parman
Our all-volunteer mission started in 2017, prompted by the efforts of Joshua Stern, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM (Cardiology) at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. In recent years, Dr. Stern and other board-certified veterinary cardiologists began to see an alarming increase in dogs with diet-associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) – a heart disease seldom seen in the previous 20 years. As we learned of this growing trend, one-by-one we joined cardiologists, board-certified veterinary nutritionists and veterinarians to help inform dog owners and the veterinary community.
We are veterinarians, professional breeders and dog owners. Most of us have seen this disease first-hand – in our clinics, in our own dogs, or in our family or friends’ dogs. We are many. We are growing. We are located around the world. Since 2017, we have launched four Facebook groups – for Golden Retriever owners, owners of all breeds and mixed breeds, veterinary professionals, and owners of affected and deceased dogs. We also launched this website.
We will continue to add our stories to this page, sharing how we each became passionate torch bearers on this important journey. Please check back often!
Yi Zhang – Group Ambassador
You might wonder why some group members are reluctant to change to a food that meets WSAVA nutrition guidelines. Well, I can tell you from a personal perspective, it was a bitter pill to swallow when I realized I knew nothing about dog food or dog nutrition.
I was a raw feeder, feeding an unbalanced diet. Then I moved to grain-free food. And I used DFA to make choices because – the more stars the better, right? I could read the ingredients and evaluate for myself what was good. What could go wrong? After all, I manage to feed myself healthy food. Well, most of the time.
It was an eye-opening experience and rather humbling to read the learning materials and critically evaluate what I thought I knew – only to come to the conclusion that I knew very little and should put my trust in those who do. Every group member wants to do the best for their dog. I believe everyone who is on this forum is a dog lover. How members process information provided here, how they evaluate that information, and how they may allow themselves to put their trust about nutrition in a manufacturer is going to vary from individual to individual.
We are here to provide information that is science-based and support members on the journey to putting their trust in the WSAVA guidelines and manufacturers who meet them. We hope to get through to every member because we all read the heart-breaking stories members share. Will we reach all members? Well, that is a decision only the member can make, and we hope everyone is open-minded enough to take in the information.
Alinda Buckingham Sabourin, DVM – Group Moderator
Preventive Medicine, Nutrition and Allergies have always been my passions as a veterinarian. The DCM groups on Facebook and spreading awareness bring my passions together for a growing universe of people who want what I want – the very best care for their furry family members.
My first dog, Romeo (the black and white dog in the photo), was a shelter mutt. He was not the healthy, medium-sized dog I expected to rescue, but he piqued my interests in so many ways and I’m forever grateful for my little lemon dog.
After months of steroids, antibiotics, feet that left bloody footprints in the snow and two intradermal skin tests with a dermatologist, we finally diagnosed Romeo with a food allergy. His allergies resolved on a raw diet trial, but raw feeding was just too much for a veterinary student. I started feeding a limited ingredient diet to Romeo, which reportedly had no cross-contamination from other ingredients. For years I was confident in my choice, despite my education telling me about the importance of nutritionists, research and feeding trials.
I watched the limited ingredient market change. These diets became popular and so did unusual ingredients to rotate. Heavy marketing ensued. I also watched Romeo’s food slowly change from 25% protein to 19% protein, while the price kept increasing. I felt I was paying for marketing. Fed up, I started rotating trendy diets, and just like everyone else, I was not yet aware of the shortcomings that would soon be revealed about the many boutique and grain-free diets on the market. At the time, though, I took pride in being able to knowledgeably discuss all of the diets I tried, including raw, with my clients.
Fast forward to the fall of 2018. A client came in with a senior dog who had a cough. There was no heart murmur, so we treated for kennel cough. Heart failure was not on the radar. When there was no improvement, radiographs were offered, but the owner wanted to try treating her for allergic bronchitis. A few weeks later, she was in heart failure. Radiographs showed the largest heart I have ever seen. She died that night, and we suspect she was a victim of diet-associated DCM. I have worked as an ER vet for years. I know how to detect heart disease, but I missed hers and it hit me hard. I started participating more aggressively in the DCM group, and with my clients feeding risky diets, I started pushing them to switch and schedule echocardiograms for their dogs. I did not want to be responsible for any more dogs suffering and dying of a completely preventable disease.
Trisha Brenner – Group Administrator
I found the Taurine-Deficient (Nutritional) Dilated Cardiomyopathy Facebook Group in the 72 hours following my dog Charlie’s DCM diagnosis. The first 24 hours after diagnosis I was shell-shocked and crying. By the 48th hour I was trying to find any reference I could regarding this disease, in order to save my dog’s life, which led me here.
In the following days and weeks, I read and read, and then read some more. I feel the information these groups work so hard to collect and share was instrumental in helping Charlie come out of heart failure and stabilize.
I wanted to give back to the community that helped Charlie and me so much. I felt my professional experiences in media and compliance gave me the ability and unique perspective to assist others grappling with their dogs’ diagnoses, and how they can educate and advocate on behalf of their dogs. I asked if I could help and now I’m here every free moment of every day, doing whatever I can to assist others.
In my role, I help with media relations, special projects, advocacy and screening procedures. I am also an administrator for the Canine Nutritional DCM Support Group. All I want is to prevent this from happening to any other dog, if I can. The way I look at it – if my dog has to suffer from this disease, I have a responsibility to try to help make sure no other dog or person experiences such relentless pain and uncertainty. Sharing my experience with Charlie will help others learn.
Catherine Cole, DVM – Group Moderator
My experience in pet nutrition began with none other than Lisa Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN – a renowned veterinary nutritionist and professor at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. As a veterinary student at Tufts, I was taught to evaluate pet food by the same criteria we now know as the WSAVA global nutrition guidelines, and as a result, I have always fed my pets Science Diet, Purina or Royal Canin. Throughout my first several years in general practice, I was adamant in my advice to clients, recommending foods that prioritized nutrients over ingredients, and that were founded on research and testing, rather than fads.
However, over time, I found myself struggling to counteract widespread misinformation regarding pet food ingredients and nutrition. Engaging clients in these conversations, trying to dissuade them from choosing grain-free and fad-based diets became increasingly difficult – so I just stopped.
In 2018, I got two wake-up calls. The first was Dr. Freeman’s June 2018 article – “A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients.” And in July 2018, the FDA announced its investigation into the link between diet and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
It became clear that my complacency and avoidance were contributing to an emerging and serious problem. I had let my clients and patients down by not discussing nutrition and helping clients better understand what good nutrition really means. Once again, I began actively counseling clients against grain-free diets and recommending time-tested diets based on science.
In the fall of 2018, I joined the Taurine-Deficient (Nutritional) Dilated Cardiomyopathy Group at the recommendation of one of my colleagues. Like so many other pet owners and veterinarians, I was also struggling to better understand why we were suddenly seeing dogs with a form of heart disease that I had not seen since veterinary school more than a decade earlier. The group became a place where I could not only learn from leaders within the profession, but also share my own knowledge and experience with tens of thousands of pet owners and, in doing so, help to raise awareness of this preventable disease on a much larger scale.
Julie Carter – Support Group Administrator
He came into our lives wearing a brown ribbon that said LOVE and for four years he brought that LOVE to our family, along with an endless supply of joy and laughter. Oliver’s generous and giving spirit started early, when at 6 months old he became Hero #2803 in the Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS). Along with 3,043 other Golden Retrievers and their devoted owners, Oliver and I accepted this mission to help the Morris Animal Foundation understand why we are losing so many of our canine friends to cancer.
Oliver was a happy-go-lucky 3½-year-old when he was diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). From the day he was diagnosed to the day he died, he looked and acted the picture of health. He was strong, playful, energetic and completely asymptomatic. Our only clue there was a problem came when a previously undiagnosed heart murmur was detected during a routine veterinary visit. It was February 12, 2018 when Oliver was diagnosed by echocardiogram and our lives were turned upside down. That day, he and I accepted a second mission – to warn other dog owners about this disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy and its potential connection to their dogs’ diet.
Six months after being diagnosed and less than 24 hours after having an echocardiogram that showed improvement, Oliver collapsed and died from a fatal cardiac arrhythmia related to his DCM. He was gone in a matter of seconds, leaving no time for us to say good-bye or accept what had just happened. A part of me died with him that day. Shortly after Oliver’s heartbreaking loss, we learned that Riley, our 8-year-old Golden Retriever, also had DCM. While their cases shared several similarities, the most glaring was the fact that they had eaten the same grain-free diet for the past three years.
Because Oliver was one of the earlier cases diagnosed, there were few available resources and I struggled to find information about the disease we were fighting. I was scared, confused, overwhelmed and felt very alone. Today, thanks to many dedicated veterinarians and passionate dog owners, you don’t have to feel alone in learning how to protect your dog. Several great resources include these Facebook groups – Taurine-Deficient (Nutritional) Dilated Cardiomyopathy, Taurine Deficiency in Golden Retrievers, and our support group, Canine Nutritional DCM Support for owners who have an affected dog or lost a dog to DCM.
As a support group administrator on the front lines of this battle, it is not uncommon for me to spend 60-70 hours per week guiding prospective and new group members, helping them find the resources and answers they seek, and seeing first-hand how these heartbroken families crumble under the emotional, physical and financial weight that comes along with this disease.
Even in death, Oliver continues to be a hero as his story is shared across the country and world. It brings me comfort to know he is still helping to save lives. Rather than allow my grief to defeat me, I work hard to continue his legacy. I owe it to Oliver to educate and advocate for those who don’t have a voice, but have everything to lose.
Terri Krempin – Group Moderator
I have bred and shown Golden Retrievers for almost 30 years and was a vet tech for 25 of those years. I always fed Purina Pro Plan to my dogs on the recommendation of my veterinarians.
When we moved to a smaller town, I struggled to find a training facility less than two hours away. I eventually met a woman who owned a boutique pet food store and also offered obedience classes. We became fast friends. She inquired what I was feeding my dogs. When I told her, she started giving me all these reasons to switch to another brand – a BEG brand that was a small family business with no recalls. I fell for it hook line and sinker, and started my dogs on one of their grain-inclusive diets. Given my background, I should have known better.
I first learned of taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) through the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS), sponsored by the Morris Animal Foundation. They are following more than 3,000 Goldens throughout life to try and better understand why dogs get cancer. I have always advocated for the betterment of my breed, so my girl Belle became GRLS Hero #2406. Dr. Stern at UC Davis also has a Golden in the study. When his observations and research on diet-associated DCM came to light, word quickly got around in the Golden community. That is when I started questioning what I was feeding my dogs. My self-questioning intensified when I joined the Taurine Deficiency in Golden Retrievers group on Facebook in March of 2018. But did I consult my vet on what I should be feeding my dogs? Nope!
I continued to research within the Golden group and even called and spoke with Fromm, who assured me they were taking this issue seriously, and that they knew about Dr. Stern’s research. I felt better, but I became wary when Belle developed a small cough. In October of 2018, when I had an echocardiogram performed on Belle, she was diagnosed with early heart changes equivalent to DCM. I was so angry at myself! I immediately switched Belle back to Pro Plan, along with the other dogs in my care. In February of 2019, after four months on a healthy, balanced diet, Belle was cleared by echocardiogram and 100% heart healthy again!
It is quite an understatement to say I was grateful for Dr. Stern’s efforts, and for all of the admins and moderators who dedicate themselves to making these Facebook groups a place to reach, educate and support as many dog owners as possible about diet-associated DCM.
I am proud to be on the team as a moderator for both the all-breed and Golden Retriever groups. Will we change everyone’s mind? No. Each owner needs to reach their own decision, on their own terms, in their own time. My personal hope is that if I can help even one owner, all of my time in these groups is worth it. I celebrate clear echoes and improvements in heart health with each owner, and I am devastated by every diagnosis or passing of a beloved family dog.
Liz Moore – Group Ambassador
I bred and showed Chihuahuas for 23 years before turning my sights to the Havanese breed in 2013. Diet has always been very important to me because healthy dogs thrive, turn heads in the conformation show ring and reproduce healthy litters. I heavily researched nutrition through the years and rotated my dogs on many BEG diets, though never grain-free formulas. I also promoted these diets to my puppy buyers. Things have changed.
In mid-2018, when a friend mentioned the news about diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, I started researching dog food again. After I joined the DCM group on Facebook in December 2018 and immersed myself in the research and learning materials, the light came on and my dogs were switched off BEG diets and onto foods that meet WSAVA nutrition guidelines. Thankfully, none of my dogs were affected or diagnosed with nutritional DCM. I have since been laser-focused on helping others learn and understand.
I am grateful for the knowledge and contributions of the veterinarians, cardiologists and board-certified veterinary nutritionists who run or contribute to this group and the industry as a whole. As a group ambassador, I am now helping others find answers and support in the same way I was helped when I joined. It is encouraging to see other dog owners wake up from marketing-induced comas when they learn the real truth about science-based nutrition. As a member of various other dog groups on Facebook, I often read of dogs dying from ‘heart problems’ and related symptoms with no definitive cause or diagnosis. I link dog owners to our DCM group and the FDA investigation into this disease every chance I get.
Jey Flick – Group Ambassador
I stumbled across the Facebook DCM forum shortly after losing a dog who had a heart condition, although it was not dilated cardiomyopathy. She did well with treatment, but we lost her to a different disease.
Her experience shared some features with DCM, though, and all of it stuck with me. When you take your dog to the emergency clinic, when you schedule a “peace of mind” echocardiogram, when you send out for a taurine test, when you consider changing food, when you say your dog has a cough … I remember it all.
I also remember when the e-vet came into the exam room holding my girl’s EKG readout, and the punch to the gut. I remember the long drive to the university, trying to work and wondering if I would see my dog again, and clinging to my phone in case they called – and having to understand ever after that some morning, any morning, she might not wake up again.
I don’t want anyone else to experience that.
I want your dog to grow old in your care. If your dog is already older, I want your days to be measured in sunbathes and cuddles and peaceful walks, not medication schedules and cardiology checkups and Care Credit applications.
There are things we can’t foresee. There are things we can’t prevent. Nutritional DCM? We can!
Samantha Wong – Group Ambassador
I got Alaska in 2015 and had every intention of buying her puppy food at the grocery store. A well-meaning friend told me not to and I turned to the internet for recommendations.
There was a lot of conflicting information, especially for a large breed puppy. I learned about by-products and filler ingredients, and started to judge foods by the ingredient list. It seemed pretty intuitive, right?
I was shocked in July 2019 when I learned about the FDA investigation into diet and heart disease. When I brought it up with a friend, she sent me to this group and told me that I should get Alaska off Acana as soon as I could.
Alaska is the love of my life and it would have killed me if she had DCM. She had only months earlier recovered from a seizure episode that sent her to the emergency vet for three days. I cried while calling my regular vet, asking for advice about Alaska’s diet. Just as my vet helped direct me to the emergency hospital for the seizure episode, she helped me schedule an echocardiogram.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who loaned me $700 for the test. Alaska’s heart was fine. But the radiologist who examined her said he was seeing one to two cases of DCM every week. Big dogs, small dogs. It didn’t matter. It made me think if I trusted my vets to take care of Alaska’s epilepsy, why wouldn’t I trust them with her nutrition? Where did all of these claims come from about vets getting kickbacks from dog food companies? Where did I learn how to evaluate dog food?
I am forever indebted to the admins, moderators and ambassadors who have put so much time and effort into creating and maintaining the group on Facebook. It has been such a great source of information and support, and that’s why I volunteered to be a group ambassador – so that people in my shoes can get the help and guidance they need to navigate diet-associated DCM.
Lisa Cerone – Group Ambassador
I have lived with dogs my whole life. In 1986, my husband and I got our first Scottie with the intention of showing and breeding. I fed Iams dog food because that is what my breeder fed. Back then, you had to buy it at a pet store. When we started showing, we saw Pedigree at a lot of shows and got free samples. We started feeding that for a bit. In 1994, after we bought our boarding kennel, I noticed many of our clients were using Purina ONE and their dogs looked amazing. I knew I could buy it in the supermarket, which was appealing because I love one-stop shopping. I started feeding it and my dogs loved it and thrived.
We continued showing and occasionally breeding to continue our line. Because of my work with dogs through boarding, grooming and training, I attended many health seminars and understood the importance of food that is nutritionally balanced and complete, and how important it was that the food was made by companies doing proper research and testing. I continued to feed Purina ONE exclusively for years.
Around 2014, I started to rotate in Fromm, Merrick and even tried a bag or two of Acana (which made my clan too gassy). I did this until 2017 and used both-grain free and grain-inclusive formulas because I fell for the myth that you need to rotate a dog’s diet. The marketing was so strong that it made me question if the Purina I was feeding was good quality, even though I knew it was and even though my dogs were healthy, lived long lives and had no chronic health issues. I noticed all my dogs did much better on Purina – better energy levels, good muscle tone, shiny coats and less poop!
In early 2018, I went back to Purina ONE exclusively, mostly due to my involvement with breeding. Many breeders were describing reproductive problems when they went off Purina foods and tried BEG foods. Formulation and testing matter! Around the same time, I started hearing about heart problems related to grain-free food from smaller brands. At first I didn’t pay much attention. But then I kept reading about it and by the end of 2018 I was all in, wanting to help spread the word.
I was in different Facebook groups and someone told me about this one. I joined, and as I read through the learning units, it was refreshing to see what I had always known and believed. This group felt like home, and soon after I volunteered to be a group ambassador so that I could help others. I have learned more than I could ever imagine, and I continue to learn. One thing that was most revealing was the fact that most manufacturers do not conduct extensive research, testing and feeding trials. I assumed they did, and I bet many others did, too.
In January of 2019, I switched our dogs from Purina ONE to Purina Pro Plan – the Savor and Focus formulas for our young adults and Bright Mind 7+ for our seniors. I do my best to inform our clients and members of a Facebook group I run for my local community. We even switched our kennel feed to Purina ONE, and it’s nice that I can get the Sensitive Systems salmon formula from Chewy. Some of our fussier guests eat this right up. Dogs know the good stuff!