FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Please read our statement about the brands we consider to be lower-risk:
You’ve come to the Facebook groups, or this site, because you’ve heard that there’s a connection between dilated cardiomyopathy and diet. We know you’re confused, and worried, and looking for guidance.
You’ve spent many years working to find the very best for your dog. Feeling like the food choices you’ve made might have been hurting her is awful.
Having found this group, you’re ready to be with a group of people who care just as much about food as you do, and you’re expecting to be told to choose your dog’s food even more carefully and cautiously than you already do. Many of you have spent a long time finding a food with a certain number of “stars” or with a brand name blessed by an expert who purports to know the truth about dog food. We know you’ve worked very hard and educated yourself for years on this.
The cardiologists and nutritionists who uncovered the taurine-DCM connection have been unanimous in their assessment that the best way to get your dog out of danger in this situation, and to protect your dog from future problems like this, is to buy your food from a company that has shown a commitment to doing regular nutrition research and that has the ability to catch these kinds of problems before they get so serious.
In particular, they recommend that your food company employ at least one full-time nutritionist (which must be a PhD or boarded DVM nutritionist), that all the company’s diets are formulated by nutritionists at these levels of expertise, and that the company not release a formula without testing and trialing that formula using the feed trial protocols established by the AAFCO. In other words, no diet is sold until it proves that it nourishes real dogs, under real conditions, rather than just having the right nutritional math but never having been tested. The company should do a huge amount of quality testing, and every batch coming into the plant should be tested. The company should manufacture the diet themselves, so it can control the ingredients and quality; it should not just send a recipe and a bag label design to a plant that makes food for many companies. And the company should subject its diets to peer-reviewed scientific research, and be able to back up any of its claims with data that is available to the public.
Perfect, you say – I’m ready to buy whatever vet diet this is; who makes it? It’ll be tough going up to that much money a bag, but anything for my dogs.
There are four US dog food brands that we know satisfy these criteria:
Purina (most formulas)
Hills (Science Diet)
And this is where the conversation generally comes to a screeching halt.
We know you’ve been told and believed for years that those food companies were terrible, the worst, full of garbage, made from floor sweepings, maybe with euthanized pets in it.
Feed one of those diets? You would do anything for love, but you won’t do that.
Dealing with the brand question is what takes up the majority of the admin time on the Facebook groups, and it leads to constant questioning, arguments, and full-blown freak-outs in the comments.
We understand, believe us. We really do. Several of the admins were feeding expensive “lots-o-stars” brands, and it was just as tough for us to wrap our brains around feeding one of the big three as it is for our members.
However, the facts are inescapable. The vast majority of the lots-o-stars brands have done an excellent job marketing their stars and their delicious human-appealing ingredient words, and a pretty poor job making sure that they’re nourishing our dogs. We have been working for months to find even a single lots-o-stars brand that employs a full-time nutritionist, let alone meets the other criteria.
So you’ll find that when it comes to talking about lower-risk foods, the same companies are going to get mentioned a lot. None of us are involved with, employed by, or influenced by any food companies – we’re simply applying the advice of the cardiologists and nutritionists who are deeply involved in both identifying and solving this terrible problem.
We have multiple PDFs and documents in our Document Library. If you only read a few, these are the articles we consider most critical:
Nutritional DCM questions
Often, by the time a dog shows outward signs, it’s too late to avoid DCM.
One member said: “The Silent Killer, they call it. But in retrospect, I believe there were signs with my boy. Two in particular. He had become less confident in darkness – hesitant to venture into the yard at night. I wondered about age-related impaired vision. He was going on 9 years. But I have since learned that taurine deficiency can cause retinal damage, even blindness. The other symptom was increased thirst. An exam and blood work were done, including a full thyroid panel. All normal. I have since learned that increased thirst can also be a symptom of DCM.
Both of these things started happening many, many months before my boy was
rushed to the ER in congestive heart failure. His life was over. Knowing about these signs, and if correlated early enough, could result in an earlier diagnosis of TD-DCM, in time for medical intervention and the critical change of diet. At the very least, knowing sooner could inform an owner of what is happening. It could help to avoid undiagnosed pain and discomfort for the dog, a sudden and costly emergency, and the devastating shock of sudden loss.”
Another member told her story: “Restlessness, flip-flopping especially at night, unable to get comfortable – I think this is a big symptom. I kept telling them to knock it off; they were in congestive heart failure and I didn’t know it.”
These are the symptoms that are sometimes associated with nutritional DCM:
• Intolerance to exercise
• Excessive panting when not exercising, inability to get comfortable, restless changes in position
• Difficulty breathing
• Blood in the urine
• Pain during urination
• Retinal damage (impaired vision/blindness)
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Increased thirst
• Accumulation of fluid in the abdomen
- Taurine testing is one way to get information about your dog’s heart. If your dog was on a suspect diet and you have concerns that your dog may have low taurine, you should seriously consider testing.
At the beginning of this issue, we were able to attach some reassurance to a high/normal taurine level. Unfortunately, in the intervening months many pet food companies have responded to the nutritional DCM crisis by adding taurine to their formulas. This will push the blood taurine higher, but not reduce the risk to your dog.
If you were not feeding a suspect diet and do not have any indications that are worrying you, the FDA is not at this time recommending that every dog be tested. If that changes, we will let you know.
If you were feeding a suspect diet, you should change your dog’s diet. That’s the absolutely key message from UC Davis, and remains unchanged even after certain pet food companies started “doping” their foods with taurine. You should also consider testing your dog’s heart – that may include an ultrasound/echocardiogram, taurine testing, proBNP testing, a Holter, and any of the other tests available to you.
A high taurine blood test as a part of those tests does not mean that your dog’s DCM is not nutritional.
- If you can afford only one diagnostic test, we’d recommend an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart). That will definitively diagnose or rule out DCM.However, regardless of that result, we recommend that you switch to a tested diet with no suspect ingredients.
- Q: If my dog has normal taurine levels, does this mean my dog doesn’t have DCM or won’t get it? (updated 11/18)
Unfortunately, no. Low taurine means you should without a doubt be very concerned, but a normal taurine level may still have nutritional DCM. Pet food companies have begun to add taurine to their diets as what we believe to be an inadequate (and incorrect) way to address the issue. As a result, blood testing has gotten higher, but dogs are still at risk because the suspect diets are still damaging the heart. We can no longer assign any reassurance to a high/normal taurine test result.
Yes. Dilated cardiomyopathy also can lead to heart valve problems, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and blood clots in the heart.
- Q: My dog is scheduled for taurine labs and an echocardiogram with his regular vet. The vet’s office has a radiologist come in monthly to do echocardiograms. Is a radiologist sufficient or should I schedule him to see a cardiologist?
One of our DVM members said: “Radiologists are trained to read xrays, CTs, MRIs and ultrasound images.
(Veterinary) Cardiologists specialize in the heart images via ultrasound (echo), Doppler, ECG and interpretation of measurements and results, specifically for the heart, plus they know the appropriate medications to prescribe.”
- Q: I talked with my vet about taurine and diet, but he wasn't aware of the issue and thought we didn't need to switch foods. We are worried that our vet is wrong. What should we do?
We realize, as admins, that not all vets are up on the entire issue, and may not be making great recommendations.
However, they are still a million times more likely to be making great recommendations than feed store employees or magazine ads, which is how most dog owners make feeding decisions.
If you are worried that your vet isn’t giving you good advice, escalate to a vet nutritionist. Don’t just decide that vets aren’t reliable.
- Q: My vet agreed with switching diets, but doesn't recommend an echo or testing at this time, until we know more or get updates. Why are you recommending all these tests?We recommend that you follow the actions recommended by UC Davis:
If your dog has been on a suspect diet, discuss with your vet or cardiologist having his or her heart checked. These tests could include an echocardiogram (ultrasound), taurine testing, NT-proBNP, electrical heart testing, x-rays, and several other options.
No matter what those tests show, UC Davis recommends considering switching your dog’s diet.
One of our members said:
“The cost of testing is actually quite reasonable given the impact and potential cost of not testing. Unfortunately, DCM is “silent” in it’s early stages and often can’t be detected upon auscultation. The great advantage to diagnosing diet related DCM early is the ability to impact prognosis. That not only greatly decreases financial costs but, emotional costs as well. Until we know much more about this very lethal disease, the prudent choice is to test all dogs that have been fed a suspect diet. It’s truly good medicine and has the very real potential to save lives.”
- Q: You said that taurine is not an essential amino acid, but with these problems, how can anyone say that it is not essential?
“Essential” vs “Non-essential” is simply a scientific definition; essential means that it must be provided in diet and the dog cannot make it on its own. Taurine is made by the dog using two other amino acids, cystine and methionine.
“Non-essential” doesn’t mean taurine isn’t important for normal body function. It’s critical to many dog systems, and is used throughout the body.
- Q : Is this a Golden Retriever problem? I don’t have a Golden. Why are there so many Golden entries in the database?This is not a Golden Retriever problem. The initial dogs submitted to the FDA, the cohort of approximately 160 dogs that prompted this advisory, were of many breeds.
The reason Goldens are (over)represented in the table is that this advisory was received by Golden owners and breeders with a lot of concern. The Golden community tends to be very aware of dog health issues, and the community is often a vital participant in dog studies of all types.
There is also some indication that Goldens may be somewhat more prone to taurine deficiencies than other breeds. That does not mean that Goldens are more prone to nutritional DCM than other breeds are – it means that their levels might show a dip before other breeds’ might.
- Every health issue has some elements of genetic predisposition – some dogs will be more susceptible than others to any disorder or disease. So yes, of course genetics will come into play.
However, all the information we have right now indicates that this is not primarily an inherited issue. The wide range of breeds involved, the spike in cases in recent years, and the resolution of the problem with diet change all speak strongly against this being inherited.
We know that it’s frustrating to not have clear directions.
Those familiar with the way FDA works in pet foods actually think the FDA is being very dramatic in the taurine DCM alert; the reaction among pet food companies was shock that the FDA released an alert that was so strongly worded.
We may think it’s vague, but FDA is generally very, very cautious and careful about making an advisory, and they rarely name companies in public alerts. We advise you to take the alert exactly at face value: The FDA has identified a worrying correlation between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy.
That’s dramatic enough for anyone, considering that grain-free foods are a full 25% of the dog food market in 2018.
Many of the responses from manufacturers of diets named in the recent FDA report and stores that sell these foods have said something like: “DCM impacts less than one percent of U.S. dogs, with .000007% being supposedly related to diet” based on the 560 cases included in the report. This is wrong for multiple reasons:
❌ 560 cases filed with the FDA out of 77 million dogs is .0007%, not .000007%! This figure seems to have first been given by a manufacturer and then repeated widely- let that be a cautionary tale about considering the sources of information.
❌ In order to come up with an accurate percentage, you would have to know how many dogs eating BEG diets have had echocardiograms (not how many dogs are in the entire country). One way to find this out would be for manufacturers to pay to have some number of dogs on their diets screened to see how many were affected.
❌ The number of dogs IMPACTED is higher than the number of dogs REPORTED to the FDA. The FDA report says:
“We suspect that cases are underreported because animals are typically treated symptomatically, and diagnostic testing and treatment can be complex and costly to owners… Because the occurrence of different diseases in dogs and cats is not routinely tracked and there is no widespread surveillance system like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have for human health, we do not have a measure of the typical rate of occurrence of disease apart from what is reported to the FDA.”
This diagram comes from an article about human infectious disease reporting, but it also illustrates all the things that have to happen for a case of NM-DCM to be reported to the FDA.
▪️It has to be detected in the first place. Dogs with DCM often show no symptoms until the disease is quite advanced, so many dogs may be asymptomatic in earlier stages. Others may have passed away suddenly with no indication of the cause.
▪️It has to be formally diagnosed. DCM can only be diagnosed by doing an echocardiogram, which is not accessible or affordable for many owners. As the FDA says, many animals are treated for the symptoms of heart disease without determining the precise cause.
▪️It has to be reported to the FDA. Families of dogs with DCM are often understandably overwhelmed by a new serious diagnosis, and there may be confusion over who is responsible for reporting- it can be the pet owner, cardiologist, or referring veterinarian. Owners might not file a report if they don’t have their dog’s full medical records (the FDA can contact vets, so it’s okay to file without them).
In her blog, Dr. Lisa Weeth noted that “in people, underreporting of adverse drug effects is a well-known problem with some reviews indicating that as high as 95% of adverse reactions go unreported. Which means we may be seeing only the 5% of actual cases that were reported to the FDA”
Food selection questions
- We want to be extremely clear that the FDA advisory does not apply solely or exclusively to grain-free foods.
It applies to any foods that are generally un(der)tested or un(der)studied as long-term dog diets.
We sometimes talk about them as “BEG” diets: Boutique brands (small companies that do not do long-term food testing), Exotic ingredients (meat and vegetable components that have a limited history of use in dog foods), or Grain-free diets.
- If you are feeding a suspect diet, whether to switch diets is a very important question. We think it’s best to address answer it in stages.
- Is your dog showing any signs or symptoms of DCM?
If yes, you must make an appointment with a veterinary cardiologist ASAP; that’s your priority, not a food switch.
If no, go to 2.
- Do you plan to check your dog’s taurine level or do an echo soon (in the next few weeks)?
If yes, it would be ideal to get the blood drawn or the echo done before you switch. Taurine levels and heart health change slowly with a new food, but they do change, so if you switch right away you could be attaching a good result to a bad food or a bad result to a good food. At the blood draw and/or echo, talk with your vet or with a veterinary nutritionist the best options for feeding going forward.
If no, go to 3.
- How comfortable do you personally feel with reading and understanding dog food ingredients and making a feeding decision?
Is this decision causing you a lot of anxiety or worry? Do you find yourself choosing one food, then choosing another, then hearing about something else and choosing yet a third? Do you feel uncomfortable deciphering individual ingredients and amounts and matching them to the worrisome list of ingredients?
If so, then we strongly encourage you to visit your vet (especially if she or he has experience in nutrition) or to make an appointment with a veterinary nutritionist to discuss the best option for your dog.
If you’re not worried – if you feel comfortable making this decision and you are confident that you can understand food ingredients – then yes, if you are feeding a brand or diet with the currently suspect ingredients or that has been formulated without testing, you should consider switching foods.
Notice that we left one option out: Sticking with your suspect diet. UC Davis is recommending that everyone feeding a suspect diet consider switching, and discuss it with their vet as soon as possible.
- It’s an informal “citizen science” collection of the testing and diet information of group members.
The purpose of the “Diet and Taurine Table” is to allow dog owners the opportunity to share information about taurine levels, taurine-deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and the food their dogs were fed prior to testing. It is not intended to show how dogs with low taurine, DCM or Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) were medically treated. It does not ask submitters about dosages of prescribed supplements or heart medications.
TO BE CLEAR, a food listed in the Table does not mean there is proof the food caused, or did not cause, low taurine levels, DCM or CHF. The science is not to that point yet. The fact is, the dog was fed a food when it was tested, and that food could be a contributing factor. The Table does not suggest or indicate that changing the dog’s food alone will cure or prevent low-taurine health issues. Dogs suspected to have taurine-related health issues should be treated by a licensed veterinarian.
All dogs submitted to the Table must have been taurine tested by a licensed laboratory. Taurine test results in either the LOW or NORMAL range are accepted. The ranges have been established by Dr. Joshua Stern, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM (Cardiology) at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis.
It may be helpful to you if you are considering a specific diet or thinking about testing your dog. It is not a scientific document and should not be used to make decisions. You and your vet (or, if you are concerned that your vet might not be an expert on this, a veterinary nutritionist) should discuss the best food for your dog.
From Dr. Stern:
“I want to remind everyone in the group that the taurine table and data presented in this forum are not part of any ongoing research of mine. This is an effort of citizen science that requires you to interpret and use the data on your own. I do not collect, interpret or distribute this data. All dogs and data included in any study that I am performing are done through my institution, approved by the IACUC and under informed owner consent. I do not run the amino acid laboratory or see any profits from testing that is sent in. I stand by the clinical recommendations that I have posted publicly on this topic and on my laboratory website – but following those guidelines does not mean that you are taking part in any research.”
- Our principles of diet selection are in
Selecting the Best Food for your Pet and
Questions to Ask about your Pet’s Food
The “meat” of these principles is to make sure that your food or diet plan is developed by veterinary nutritionists and backed by research. (This can include home-prepared diets with the help of nutritionists). In addition, the pet food brand should manufacture their own food so they can provide some quality control evidence.
We can recommend only those diets that meet all or most of the recommendations.
If possible, a recommended diet should also be in the diet/taurine table. The exceptions might be puppy food or when a dog has a very unusual need, but the principles of diet selection still apply.
- The best way I can put it is this: When you are standing looking at a dog food bag or reading a food website, ask yourself
Is this a food made for ME to feel good?
Is this a food made for MY DOG to feel good?
Words associated with foods made for YOU to feel good: human-grade, restaurant-quality, grain-free, gluten-free, sustainable/low-impact, “healthiest,” limited-ingredient (in non-prescription foods), premium/super-premium, nourishing, no by-products, evolutionary, fresh, gently/lightly cooked, whole food, natural, any pictures on the bag or website, and a big focus on the ingredient list. YOU SHOULD IGNORE ALL THESE WORDS; THEY HAVE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH HOW GOOD A FOOD IT IS.
Words associated with foods made for YOUR DOG to feel good: AAFCO feeding tests, research, nutritionist, and specific (must be backed up by studies) claims of fact like “optimizes oxygen metabolism” or “effective prebiotic” or “highly palatable.” If you dig into their manufacturing, they make their own food and don’t contract with a packer over which they have zero quality control. They don’t tend to avoid the ingredients (like corn and by-products) that you’ve been told to dislike but your dog likes just fine.
Of course, even the most scientifically researched diet in the world will have the “you feel good” language too; dogs don’t spend money and you do, so marketing writers will add nice-sounding words to everything. But if you remove all the words for YOU, what’s left? If there’s nothing left, this is a food that was formulated and made in order for YOU to buy it. Its primary goal is your wallet, no matter how many adorable dogs are smiling at you in pictures. In other words, it is a BOUTIQUE food.
- All dog foods must meet AAFCO requirements, but some do so based solely on the theoretical math of a recipe. Others are tested.
One way to think about this is if you are baking cookies. A recipe based on a certain number of grams of chocolate, certain number of grams of baking soda, grams of ground wheat, grams of butter, and grams of sugar may end up giving you a chocolate chip cookie, but it also could end up giving you chocolatey baking soda next to a pool of melted butter and burnt flour. Without a feeding trial, there’s no way of knowing whether your guests experienced a cookie or not.
Dog food ingredients work together, just like a cookie recipe does. It’s not necessarily a simple math problem of protein grams plus starch grams plus vitamins; the bioavailability of certain nutrients changes, even changes dramatically, depending on the other nutrients and foods in the recipe.
The foods that demonstrate long-term feeding (ten years is not unusual) and sustained health are more trustworthy than those that put together ingredients without testing.
- Q: Do AAFCO feeding tests usually involve diverse types of dogs? multiple breeds / sizes? Is the result of a typical feeding trial applicable to all types of dogs?
Yes, the AAFCO protocols and nutrient profiles are based on testing multiple sizes of dogs, including specific large-breed dogs and puppies.
There have been questions recently about AAFCO feeding trials; there seems to be a vested interest on the part of small/”natural” companies in minimizing the validity of AAFCO, probably because they don’t/can’t pass the trials. Whole Dog Journal and the others in the natural industry like to give the impression that a feeding trial is just a few dirty beagles who don’t die when fed a food for a few weeks.
All-life-stages trials are two consecutive tests run on the same dogs, first for growth and then for maintenance, so they are very long. The restricted diets – the ones only for growth or only for maintenance – are 26 weeks, with a minimum of eight dogs being fed the tested diet. However, no dog can “fail” the trial. Up to two may be removed from the trial if they refuse to eat or if they must be removed for unrelated causes, but if even a single dog fails because of the nutrition, the food fails. The dogs have serial blood tests that can have zero bad results, regular weigh-ins, in-person vet exams, the amount of food consumed each day must be tracked, etc.
A feeding trial also involves more than eight dogs or cats. Many/most are controlled, meaning that an equal number of dogs/cats is fed a control diet. Each trial requires comparison to a colony average, which must be 30+ dogs (growth and ALS foods must compare to 60+ dogs). So the data points are not coming from eight dogs who manage to survive; they are coming from a minimum of 46 dogs and quite likely hundreds of dogs.
Now, sure, the time is relatively limited and so on. It would be awesome if every food required a full year. But the alternative – the statement that those boutique brands seem to imply is great – is just doing a math test on the food. “This food has been formulated to have the same basic nutrition as a food that has passed a feeding trial.” That’s very definitely not better.
- Q: I looked on my dog food’s website and they say they have adequate taurine levels in the food, or are adding more taurine to their food. Does this mean it’s safe?
The short story: No, this doesn’t solve the problem.
The long story: Dogs don’t need extra taurine in their food sources. They make their own taurine in their bodies using cysteine and methionine, two other amino acids. The root cause of the taurine-DCM issue we are dealing with now is NOT that food manufacturers were not putting enough taurine in their foods. It is possibly a deficiency or malabsorption earlier in the amino acid pathway, where the dog should be accessing the cysteine and methionine in the foods, OR it’s a leaching/binding of the taurine in the dog’s body by the fiber in legumes and pulses, OR both.
So no, adding taurine to the food isn’t fixing the issue – it’s not even band-aiding it. None of the foods the FDA tested were low in taurine; they didn’t need more. The DOGS are low in taurine, not the foods.
Personal note: If I see that a dog food company is announcing that they are adding taurine in response to the FDA alert, it is a mark against the company, not for it. It means they didn’t listen and don’t understand the real problem, but they know that consumers heard the word “taurine” and so they are going to dump some more taurine in the mix.
- Q: If pet food companies adding taurine doesn't work, then why does Taurine supplementation reverse TD-DCM?
From Dr. Stern:
“Taurine supplementation is sometimes advised by cardiologists, but only WITH diet change in this current issue! No one is trying taurine alone because we are too worried to recommend that. This issue is NOT the same as our previous publications from years ago on TD-DCM. There is something extra “bad” going on that needs to be sorted out.”
- We do not recommend against raw diets. However, we strongly recommend that you not begin a raw diet without talking with your veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist. We will not allow recommendations for or against specific raw diets or raw brands that do not meet the WSAVA/Cummings criteria.
- Q: Can you define nutritionist? My dog food company says they have a nutritionist, but you say they don't. What gives?
Kim, one of our moderators (and a DVM) says:
“Advanced nutrition degrees (which meet the definition of what we call “Nutritionist”) are Veterinary Nutritionist and PhD Animal Nutritionist (they could also have post-doc specialty areas or areas they emphasize due to research).
*A Veterinary Nutritionist is a veterinarian who has spent an additional 3 years training and then testing to become a board-certified member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. (Do not confuse this with the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition which is a useful group for encouraging nutritional learning, but only requires “membership” not special training.)
ACVN board-certified members can be found here: (and minor point is that someone who has done everything but the board-cert test would be called “board-eligible”)
*A PhD animal nutritionist is a doctorate degree in animal nutrition. If your company has only one of these, it might be fair to ask their emphasis on companion animal (rather than livestock or equine background)
*An MS nutritionist has a masters degree in animal nutrition (as with the PhD, they have training and experience in companion animal issues, but at the MS level they have not been responsible for as much independent research and they have had several years’ less schooling)
*A BS in animal nutrition is a 4 yr college degree
Who is not one of these but might be called a “nutritionist’ by their company or by others:
-Someone with some other degree
-Someone who claims to have nutritional knowledge, or worked for a pet store or a veterinarian or read a book
-A veterinarian who has an interest in nutrition and talks about it on the internet
There may be a few cases where someone does not have the appropriate “animal nutrition” degree and is still a valuable part of diet formulation, such as someone who started with a human nutrition degree, a veterinary degree, or an animal science degree, and then took more courses plus added experience and became pretty darn knowledgeable. Such a person might be a valuable PART of a team formulating diets. I say “part” because companies that do real nutrition research and understand formulation have both veterinary AND PhD nutritionists plus dozens of these other scientists.
If a company employs only 1 or 2 people with advanced nutrition degrees and is making a boatload of formulas, I question their ability to offer a diet claimed to be nutritionally adequate. If their ONLY nutritionist is someone who doesn’t have those advanced degrees and is winging it on their own, please RUN AWAY.
Read carefully, because the way some companies try to make their formulators sound like they have advanced nutrition degrees is like reading The Onion. Here is some examples of good entertainment.
-One company calls their owner a “companion animal nutritionist”. This person’s degree is in Equine and Business Studies. This person supposedly leads the marketing team as well as formulates the diets.
-Another company spends a full paragraph describing how their diet formulator used to work for a very well known veterinarian/researcher at another company… but the actual degree of THIS formulator is a bachelors in animal science (note NOT animal nutrition) and an MBA.
-A very common tactic is to say “our veterinarian who is our nutritionist” or “our nutritionist veterinarian”. I wonder if they are hoping you will cough while you read that so that you might hear “veterinary nutritionist” and be all happy???
- Q: Long ago, dogs ate table scraps and canned food and lived very long healthy lives. Should we go back to those times?
I know that we all remember long-lived dogs, but it’s actually not true that dogs used to live longer – rosy retrospection and nostalgia tend to remove all the bad experiences of dogs dying young and just remind us of the great experiences of dogs living very long lives.
We absolutely have to tackle this problem, and I think a lot of us are looking into the past and reminding ourselves that simple nutrition and marketing for dogs is probably the best practice. But we don’t think the problem is vaccines or flea control or having kibble; the problem is inexperienced kibble manufacturers who follow trends instead of nutrition.
Food switching questions
- You’ve brought up a whole constellation of closely related issues, all having to do with what your dog is, erm, leaving behind.
The most common set of symptoms we’ve seen are all related to the fact that grain-free diets use such a drastically different starch/binding method than grain-inclusive diets do.
Your dog’s intestines are not just sitting there – they are always moving, pushing digested foods along. If you imagine putting a plastic easter egg inside a pair of panty hose and then moving the egg toward the toe of the tights, you’ll get a really accurate picture of how the intestines work. In the same way that you have to squeeze the hose behind the egg to get it to move forward, the intestines squeeze behind a small ball of digesting food, moving it down.
That squeezing and moving is something that the intestines “learn” – they actually get in a very steady rhythm, according to what is needed to work with the food your dog has eaten.
When your dog has eaten something full of legumes and potatoes, the intestines work like yours do after Thanksgiving dinner – they’re pushing a lot of bulk and volume through your dog’s system.
When you switch to a well-made grain-inclusive food, the bulk and volume are different and the food moves at a different rate. This throws the intestinal timing off – what they memorized doesn’t work as well anymore. They have to adjust themselves to a new pace and effort.
In addition, the giant population of beneficial bacteria that lives in your dog’s intestine has been fed peas and potatoes for a very long time. You’ve changed their diet too, which means some are going to die off and others are going to thrive.
The incorrect pace/effort of intestinal movement and the bacterial population change is what causes the majority of the symptoms we don’t like about transitioning. Gas, change in stool texture or size, irritation and mucus, and increased or decreased timing (pooping too frequently or not frequently enough) are all part of it.
So if you’ve made it to the end of this long explanation, what does this mean for you?
Well, first, you have to realize that gastrointestinal symptoms are not a sign that the new food doesn’t agree with them. They’re a sign that the new food is very different from the old food, and they will decrease over time as the intestines match themselves up with the new ingredients. If the symptoms are very worrisome to you, transition very slowly or talk with your vet about transitioning using a hypoallergenic food. Otherwise, give your dog’s body some time to adjust before you decide that the new food isn’t working.
Second, you can help get things under control more quickly with probiotics and a fiber supplement if your vet recommends that. PLEASE REALIZE THAT WE DO NOT RECOMMEND ANYTHING UNTESTED. We are not going to allow recommendations for anything but veterinary products. Your vet can give you a good probiotic and a targeted fiber supplement to keep gastro symptoms to a minimum.
From the admins: We cannot recommend any food for a dog with a health issue. For cysteine-stone-forming dogs, we strongly recommend that you go straight to a nutritionist.
Common objections: Causes, epidemiology, research
- Diet-connected DCM is, without question, about diet. There is no evidence that any other mechanism is at fault.
In terms of exactly what’s going on in exactly which pieces of the diet, nutritional DCM is one of those rare diseases where we have the cure before we know the precise details of the cause.
We do not think you should wait to act until we know those specific details. There is no risk in switching to a proven and tested diet, and a definite risk in staying on a suspect diet.
- So if DCM is caused by Boutique brands, Exotic proteins, OR Grain-free or combination thereof - this excludes A LOT of pet foods if you exclude foods with ANY of those criteria.Yes, it does exclude a huge number of pet foods (see our statement on brands, above).
This fact ticks off a huge number of people. However, we’d suggest, respectfully: Instead of getting mad at the moderators for recommending the big brands, why don’t you go to your favorite small brand and get mad at them for not passing the basic criteria for making a trustworthy dog food?
We should have thirty or fifty or a hundred choices that meet the WSAVA criteria instead of just three. The fact that we do not is a symptom of how bad the pet food market has become, with almost exclusively human-oriented marketing-based foods instead of scientifically tested and proven dog-oriented foods.
- Are the dogs listed in the table the only dogs that have been reported as having diet-linked DCM? Is anyone, the FDA or researchers keeping a larger list of suspected or known cases?No, there are many many dogs not in our table, and researchers are dealing with an entirely different set of data. Our table is a “citizen science” project, but is self-reported. That means we need to be careful when we interpret it – it is not scientific evidence and it is not used in any researcher’s conclusions.
We have heard that cardiologists overseas are concerned, but have not seen data yet. However, the lack of a definite set of diagnosed dogs doesn’t mean it’s not a concern there. The whole issue is so newly identified that it hasn’t been on anyone’s radar. It could be that European feeding habits are different, too.
- Are all the group admins vets? What qualifies them to counsel 14,000 dog owners on what to feed their pets?The group admins include veterinarians, cardiologists, nutritionists, breeders, owners, and combinations of those qualifications.
- Until I start seeing actual evidence that is repeatedly proven, I'm hesitant to take my dogs off what they have done so well on for so long. Where's the conclusive proof with airtight causation studies?I think everyone on this group (certainly the mods and the cardiologists and nutritionists) is very open and honest about the fact that we don’t have an airtight case on exactly what percentage of legumes or pulses or contaminants or whatever vs which meats is going to be a problem in exactly which foods. We may not ever get a perfect answer, though I think we’ll get closer as time goes on.
However, with the exception of prescription diets (which we are NOT typically commenting on/recommending, because that is a vet’s job), ***YOU DIDN’T NEED AN AIRTIGHT CASE TO CHOOSE THE SUSPECT DIET YOU’RE ON RIGHT NOW!***
What prompted you to pick it was marketing and advice from someone you trusted. Unfortunately, much of the time that someone was a feed store employee, a friend, or an internet “food guru,” not a vet. A lot of us chose based on how pretty the bag was and how human-oriented the ingredients sounded, honestly. We didn’t choose it after reading research; we chose it based on how it made us feel to buy it.
The fact that we’re insisting on an airtight case to switch OFF that food is an indication of how we get emotionally attached to brands or brand claims.
Emotional attachment is what makes us reluctant to switch, even when we should. Those brands made us feel good about how we were treating our dogs and how much we were loving them through food, and so we hate the feeling that maybe we weren’t doing the best perfect thing for them. We hate it so much that we will come up with any excuse to avoid confronting the science and facts.
Our goal in this group is not to make anybody feel bad (well, maybe a few pet food brands). Our goal is very simple: Bring the way people choose foods AWAY from marketing and AWAY from non-expert “experts”, and bring the way people choose foods back to leaning on the advice of veterinary nutritionists and the veterinary community.
We ARE probably going to ask you to consider switching diets. But we don’t want to just be the new Internet guru. Everything we say always has to go back to research, science, and nutrition, and be checked against the gold standard advice of cardiologists and nutritionists. That’s the airtight case you need.
- How do we know that the dogs diagnosed with nutritional DCM didn't die of something else? Were they up to date on everything, did they regularly visit vets, did they eat something poisonous or get exposed to a toxin?Before releasing its alert, the FDA did extensive interviews with the owners of the affected dogs. Several of our members were among those owners, and they were (and have continued to be) interviewed about every possible cause, from the vitamins and supplements their dogs were being given to the weeds growing in their yards. Several hypotheses were examined and rejected. The commonality was definitely the diet the dogs were being fed, and specifically that all were eating what Dr. Freeman at Tufts calls a BEG diet – boutique, exotic, and/or grain-free.
A post from Joanna:
“A very nice and well-meaning group member asked us to approve a post from a food blog that I am not going to name, but is based on telling the “truth” about dog food.
We never approve, even to rebut arguments, without reading it thoroughly, so I opened the article and read through it and take some notes. By the second paragraph, my notes said “WHAT THE EVER-LOVING CHEESE BISCUITS IN PURGATORY IS THIS??!”
I know that when admins refuse to post what some call “dissenting views,” there’s a worry that maybe the group is censoring, or not allowing free discussion, or whatever. I promise, we’re not doing that. If we can post it and carefully explain and partially rebut it, we will. But when something is so completely off the mark that I’m sending dairy-flavored foods to the Bad Place, no matter how much we comment or carefully research the statements, it’s going to do nothing but confuse our members and panic them about what is going on with their dogs.”
- Q: OK, maybe some articles aren't trustworthy, but THIS article seemed really good! Should I trust it?
We really appreciate how active you guys are as members, and how much you’re thinking about this issue. We love that you dive in and find all kinds of sources, but we need to be very careful about who we listen to.
There are two sources that we’re considering to be authoritative on what to do now that we’re confronted with this taurine/DCM connection: The FDA and the UC Davis lab. I’d also add the Tufts (Cummings School) nutrition information as very important, and not in conflict with either of the first two.
Any articles or blogs that cast doubt on the FDA alert or on the conclusions or recommendations for behavior by UC Davis should be viewed as less authoritative.
I think you’re all aware of the fact that moving away from the foods we’ve all considered to be the best, and toward foods that many of us were not comfortable feeding, is a very tough mental switch. Well, it’s turning out to be a very tough mental switch for dog bloggers and writers too. They’re coming up with all the objections that are natural when something you’re really emotionally invested in is threatened – that it must not be true, that it’s just correlation and not proven, that the real enemy is [fill in the blank: the FDA, China, AAFCO, money-grubbing vets, Nestle, etc.].
Being a good writer doesn’t make you less prone to cognitive dissonance than the rest of us are. It just makes you convincing as you argue the wrong thing.
So we have to be extremely conservative about whose advice to follow. We’re going with the plain meaning of the four-step plan outlined by UC Davis: 1) If you are going to test, test. (If not, go to step 2) 2) Seriously consider changing diet no matter what results you get on the testing. Choose a diet based on the WSAVA criteria. 3) Report low results or DCM to the FDA. 4) Work with your veterinarian.
Common objections: Dog food quality and ingredients
- “My dog has done great on XX food for years and you’re telling me to switch him to Crap Brand? What are you, paid by Royal Canin?”
That’s by far the most common first or second question on our groups. And trust us, we get it. (And no, we’re not paid by anybody.) You’ve been spending $80 a bag on the dog equivalent of surf and turf for years; you count omega fatty acids with a calculator; you have been telling people to switch off the checkered logo at every opportunity. Your dog has a beautiful coat and nice small poops and she got her MACH on Mrs. Truvio’s Victory Sport Food; and anyway *there’s no one best food for every dog,* right?
This current issue is not about which food is “best.” It’s not about luxuriousness of ingredients. What the taurine issue has exposed is not “bad ingredients” – it’s a failure in the way we’ve insisted that food companies behave. Instead of asking that they show us years of data showing that their food is safe, we’ve asked them to give us foods that sound like they should be found on a human restaurant menu, and we’ve rewarded them for giving us dozens and dozens of formulas, far more than any company could ever test. The taurine problem isn’t our fault, but it does show that we need to re-align how we think about dog foods. Companies that have never fed their food to actual dogs shouldn’t have the opportunity to be in our dogs’ bowls, especially for years and years.
We are not saying that the testing companies (Royal Canin, Purina, Eukanuba, Iams, Hill’s Science Diet…and we’ll add to the list as fast as we can) are always making a “better” food. That’s in the eye of the beholder. But we are saying that right now it looks like they make a safer food, and a tested food, and they’ve shown that they deserve to be trusted.
- The foods you guys keep recommending all have by-products, which isn't even meat. Why feed your dogs garbage?The myth that byproducts are bad is one that has been taken advantage of by boutique food companies for years.
It is not, and has never been, true.
Byproducts are all the clean parts of the animal that are not skeletal muscle – the major component is organ meat. It does not include feathers, indigestible parts, floor sweepings, waste, or anything else that would be unhealthy for your dog.
- The boutique food industry has made a lot of converts over the years by talking about “fillers,” which they define vaguely, but ends up being any ingredient that doesn’t sound like meat.
In this scary world of fillers, other brands’ foods have just a small amount of good digestible matter in each kibble. The rest is “filler” – stuff that is used to make the kibble bigger or cheaper. The implication is that the boutique brand’s kibble is a hamburger patty, but the other brand’s is the patty, the wonderbread bun, AND the cardboard container it comes in.
Precisely what this filler is supposedly made of varies – sometimes it’s corn, sometimes it’s rice, sometimes it’s by-products of various kinds.
We accept the use of the word “filler” to mean just one thing: an ingredient that is not digested or used by the dog in any way – an ingredient that has no function in the dog’s diet and is used only to create a visual appearance in the kibble.
Corn is not a filler. Rice is not a filler. Meat by-products are very definitely not fillers. Each of these ingredients is digested and used by the dog, and in the case of meat by-products they may actually be more valuable to the dog than the meat itself. Beet pulp is also not a filler; it is a valuable fiber source.
- Q: The food I want to feed has suspect ingredients, but they're after a whole bunch of great-sounding ingredients. Since they're so far down the list, it must be safe.THE MYTH OF “FURTHER DOWN THE LIST”:
Two dog foods are in front of you. One has an ingredient list (first ten ingredients; these are fictional and not real foods) of Chicken meal, poultry by-product meal, brewer’s rice, corn gluten meal, wheat, animal fat, soybean oil, salmon meal, oatmeal, natural flavor.
The second has an ingredient list of deboned chicken, deboned lamb, fresh salmon, fresh pollock, fresh whole pears, fresh apples, deboned pork, fresh chicken livers, rice flour.
Which food has more rice?
The answer is you have absolutely no idea.
Way back when, before people typically read the ingredient lists of pet foods and when pet foods were all made with basically the same stuff, those “in the know” could read ingredient lists and get something valuable out of them. That’s where the further-down-the-list advice came from. But that hasn’t been true for decades. Pet food companies realized that consumers were using the ingredient list as a proxy for quality, and so the foods designed for the high-end market ended up with ingredient weights tortured and mixed and re-sorted in order to make the meat-sounding ingredients just a bit heavier than the non-meat-sounding ingredients. A one-inch cube of rice flour weighs a fraction of a one-inch cube of apple, so you can push the rice further down and the apple further up, creating an impression that the food is just like a meal you’d make for yourself.
That’s why the FDA doesn’t give a number of ingredients to watch for. They define a “main ingredient” as anything before the vitamins get added, because the vitamins can’t (at least not yet!) be tortured into various weights, and are pretty light. All dog vitamins weigh close to the same, so where the vitamins begin is where the ingredient list is leveled across all brands.
Almost every dog owner has been “trained” to read the ingredient list and interpret it. We’d love it if the ingredient list was still an honest reflection of quality – that would be so much easier than telling people to call food companies and ask about PhDs! But it’s not, and the quicker you can drop that assumption the better for your dog.
- No, we do not believe that a certain percentage of protein from meat is either protective or important in avoiding dietary DCM. Here’s why:
What dog food companies and dog food gurus prey on is the perception that dogs are eating the pictures on the front of the bag. After that, it’s just “common sense” – your dog would be better nourished by a steak than by an ear of corn, so the food that is more steak-y than corn-y is the better food.
Those companies and gurus take advantage of the fact that most people don’t know or understand how dog food is made, and the processes that every ingredient (whether meat or non-meat) has to go through. They name their formulations after meals to even further convince you that what’s in the bag is something very much like what would be on a plate.
What is FACTUALLY true is that dog bodies care very much about being given very digestible sources rich in protein, and dog bodies also care about whether the protein is in the correct ratios of amino acids (not deficient in cystine, for example). Dog bodies do not know OR care where that protein comes from.
Dog nutritionists formulating personalized diets for very sick and sensitive dogs commonly make recipes with no meat at all – for dogs who need the most support and care. They know that what you picture when you hear “beef” is not what the dog’s body understands or what it needs.
But what about phytoestrogens!? What about the fact that [plant ingredient I don’t like] has [property I don’t like]?
YES – you are asking exactly the right question there. Because plants (and animals) bring with them a whole range of things beyond just their protein, carb, or fat amounts.
That is the **key point** about why you have to avoid “exotic” (and peas, potatoes, rabbit, tuna, and those other delicious sounding meal names are all exotic) sources of nutrients.
Corn may be inexpensive and not very glamorous, but dog food researchers know it up, down, and sideways. They know exactly how it behaves in dogs’ bodies when it’s flaked, ground, fractionated, steamed, combined with every other ingredient under the sun, spun in a centrifuge, and sprayed against a wall. They can formulate with and around corn’s properties, and have done so for many many years.
Wheat and rice are very similar. They’ve been used for so long, and in so many species, and under so many conditions, that their shortcomings and their values are known cold.
So don’t go out looking for an exciting and interesting supper you’d enjoy preparing to feed your dog. Don’t look for “more meat.” Look for foods that have had to prove, for decades, that they build your dog properly, allow your dog to thrive, let your dog live a long time, let your dog reproduce normally.
- Q: Come on - here's one food with Fresh Wild Boar and a second food with Corn Gluten Meal. It's obvious that the first is better!
This “fact” – that better-sounding ingredients are actually better ingredients – is the foundation of the entire problem we’re currently having with dog foods.
Consumers have become trained to look for ingredients that sound good to them, or they could imagine eating, or sound “simple” or “natural.”
But here’s the fact: Nobody has ever opened a bag of dog food and seen a salmon in it. The processing of the food changes the availability and digestibility of the components so much that it really doesn’t resemble “salmon” or “chicken” or “boar” at all. That’s why treating dog food as digestible nutrients is much more important than treating it as an appetizing meal.
If it helps, stop thinking that the ingredient list is anything more than a series of brownish powders. There’s no steak or chicken thighs or wild boar in there; no matter how impressive the company has made the ingredient list look, it’s a mix of a bunch of powders. Your dog’s system doesn’t digest it like it’s steak; it digests it like it’s a brown powder. Food companies know what you want to see on an ingredient list, and they make the ingredient list read that way. It has shockingly little to do with how your dog’s body handles it or gets value from it.
So don’t look for pretty words. Look for years of testing and years of results, and quality nutrition with science behind it.
From one of our admins:
“There are several pet food brands that have replaced the grains that would normally provide the starch in the food with tapioca. Tapioca is made from cassava (another relatively common starch replacement) and has almost no nutrition in and of itself; it’s just pure starch.
The use of tapioca would be “E” (exotic ingredients without long-term testing in dogs) and “G” (grain-free) in the “BEG” diet components to avoid.
Also, while I am thinking of it – seeing tapioca used so heavily is something that should explode your assumption that “grain-free” somehow means “nutrition dense.” Pet food companies are very glad to let you assume that removing the grains has left a food that is much meatier and more concentrated in nutrition. But tapioca is virtually absent of nutrition, and it has replaced the much more nutrient-dense corn and wheat and rice that would normally be the starch portion. It gives owners the impression that they’ve replaced breakfast cereal with steak and eggs, but in fact they’ve replaced breakfast cereal with wallpaper paste.”
- Soy is a legume, but it’s been studied as a dog food ingredient for many years. When used by a major company, we do not think it should disqualify a food formula.
- Q: We've been told to not feed lamb (or peas, or soy, etc.), but the big brands you push so hard have those ingredients. What gives?One of the most common objections to the big tested brands is that they have some formulas that break our rules – pea fiber or pea protein or potato starch or venison or whatever.
How is it, they ask, that peas are a suspect ingredient when the food is made by Aunt Mimi’s Homestyle Sweet Kitchen (hashtag-sweetkitchen hashtag-enjoyinglife hashtag-blessed hashtag-mydogismybro) but it’s Ok when it’s used by a big company?
Well, honestly, because of exactly that. It IS, generally, a lot safer when it’s used by a big company.
One of the pictures that the nutritionists and cardiologists working on this problem have made clearer and clearer for us is that the ingredients themselves are not bad for dogs, but they’re a lot tougher to work with than the small/non-testing companies are prepared for. The “math” of the ingredient doesn’t give the whole picture – these ingredients have tricks up their sleeves.
Corn, chicken, beef, rice, wheat – they’ve been used for so long that there aren’t surprises there. Whether you flake, boil, steam, pre-extrude, grind, roll, or crack a kernel of corn, the exact behavior of that corn once it gets into a dog’s digestive tract is very well known. How easily it’s digested, its amino acid availability, how it combines with other ingredients, how it behaves in dogs with various disorders, you name it – all very well researched.
Spray-dried egg product, alligator meal, kangaroo, sweet potato, lentils – those are new to the market. There hasn’t been time to turn them upside-down and shake out the hidden cards. A small company gets a pitch from an ingredient provider for Special Meal and hears “Blah blah percent protein and exceptional ability to hold a shape during extrusion. We also offer nutritionist consults as you add Special Meal to your ingredient lists.” They think “Oh, wow, Special Meal could be the answer to what we’ve been looking for, because we’ve been having trouble with our kibbles breaking when they’re in the bag; the customers don’t like the dust. And we could bump the protein too. Awesome, let’s get ourselves some Special Meal.”
Three months later, a new peach-colored formula called Bison and Special hits the store shelves. It has Bison, Special, tapioca, and vitamins. 89% meat-based protein!
What the small company didn’t know was that when you combine Bison and Special, Special’s bioavailability actually goes down. Or maybe when you don’t store Special under the right temperature conditions, it begins to go rancid. Or it could be that Special’s really great properties in terms of holding the kibble together also mean it’s tougher to break down in the stomach and intestine, so the digestibility percentage went down by 5 percent. Or any one of a hundred reasons that foods don’t behave the way people think foods are going to behave.
A huge company, on the other hand, gets pitched for Special Meal too. They don’t take the ingredient provider up on the nutritionist time – no, they send it to their own pretty massive staff of nutritionists. Then they feed it for a year to dogs under research. They buy lab time with one of the big companies that does cecectomized rooster assays. They realize that if you’re going to use Special, you have to make up for its shortcomings with other ingredients. But they DO like how Special makes a nice crunchy kibble, so three years after that pitch, the big company puts out a peach-colored formula called Chicken and Special. It has chicken, byproduct meal, wheat flour (because it provides the amino acids that Special is not great at providing), Special, and brewer’s rice. It’s about 60% meat-based protein.
Which food is the better food? In which food is Special a suspect ingredient?
- **X tested brand** has beet pulp. I thought we were supposed to avoid beet pulp because it lowered taurine?When the FDA put out its alert for diets connected to DCM in dogs, several internet food gurus immediately pointed to a several-decades-old beet pulp study, in which dogs fed a large amount of beet pulp as part of a very low-protein diet had lowered taurine levels.
That study does not apply to the way beet pulp is used by manufacturers in non-study conditions. We do not believe it is a suspect ingredient or dangerous to dogs when part of a tested diet.
- We think that snacks and treats with legume ingredients are harmless, as long as they are given as a small proportion of the diet and not steadily.So, in other words, giving a pea starch chewy once a week is probably fine. Giving three of them a day is risky.Peanut butter is not a concern when used to give medications or when used as a treat in small amounts. But if you are giving a huge Kong filled with a quarter-cup of frozen peanut butter every single morning, yes, you should think about what you can use instead.
Common objections: Brands
- We can’t possibly give you a better answer than Tufts (the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center) has already given:
- Q: How come some of the brands that the Big Three owns (like Dog Chow by Purina, Pedigree by Mars, etc.) are not as good as the high-end like Royal Canin or Pro Plan? If the big brand does research and is considered a safe food?
The answer is sort of like why a Nissan Versa doesn’t have the same handling as an Infiniti Q60. Nissan Corp owns them both, but the R&D dollars go into one and not the other. The cheaper car benefits from the fact that Nissan is a trustworthy global maker of cars and has to meet regulatory standards, but it’s not going to be the same experience.
Since we’re asking you to consider the WSAVA criteria, the lower-end offerings from the big companies would get a “yes” on having nutritionists formulate them, but are not usually AAFCO feeding trial tested, and they usually do not publish scientific studies to support their claims. We don’t think they’re unsafe foods, and don’t buy into the prejudice against them as being “garbage” or anything close. But if you want the full benefit of the research that goes into the flagship food brands, buy the flagship foods.
- Q: It looks like the Big Three (Mars, which owns Eukanuba and Royal Canin, Purina, and Hills/Science Diet) have some formulas that are grain-free or use some suspect ingredients. Why should I trust them?
That’s a great question.
We want to emphasize that there is nothing magically better about the Big 3 brands than any other brand. By “magically” I mean without proof. That is, any other brand could be just as good, if not better, than Purina or Mars or SD if they committed to do the same stuff. Hire and develop nutritional expertise, do long-term and short-term trials, and be a source not only of good food but of nutritional innovation and diet-based health for dogs.
So when we say that we think very small amounts of the suspect ingredients are likely to be lower risk in a Purina diet, we do NOT mean that just because it has a checkerboard on it, it’s better. What we mean is that because it has a checkerboard on it, it’s a lot more likely to have gone through long-term trials that prove it doesn’t hurt dogs. And we’re also relying on Dr. Stern’s comment that of the dogs he’s seen with disease, virtually all were eating non-big three diets. He does thousands of echocardiograms a year, and he feels very confident that the big brands are lower-risk than the BEG brands.
SO – the final/official advice we’d give is to put ALL the pieces together. Avoid boutique, exotic, and grain-free formulas in all brands. Do not use a formula, in any brand, that appears to have replaced grain starches with legume/potato starches. Insist that your brand test and prove its claims. Don’t follow a name, follow a set of research-based decisions.
- Q: But Royal Canin has a whole line of potato-based P foods! How can you recommend a brand with those suspect ingredients?
Royal Canin is a pretty focused “chicken is for regular; other proteins are only for veterinary” company. They don’t do “flavors” in the way that other companies do. All their normal diets are chicken based.
RC doesn’t intend the P diets to be fed unless there’s a clear indication that they must be fed, after an elimination diet establishes a real allergy or intolerance. They’re not formulations you switch to without your vet’s OK.
We do not recommend one of the P diets without a vet’s say-so, and under the supervision of a vet who can monitor and recommend any supplementation or diet changes needed.
- Unfortunately, when people rotate they generally do so only within a really tight set of criteria (like always from the same brand, or always the same meat source), which likely dilutes the whole purpose of rotating, which is to make up for any theoretical deficiencies in a single diet. So we generally don’t recommend rotating just for the sake of rotating – find a tested diet and stick with it.If you want to mix or swap diets for some reason, follow the same principles of transition that you do with any diet change.
Common objections: OK, I believe you, but I won’t switch because…
However, “some dogs doing OK” is not the test that a dog food must pass. A properly formulated and tested dog food should have ZERO instances of nutritional disease when it is fed to healthy dogs. That’s the normal, standard bar that a food should be able to get over. A single dog getting sick or dying from a dog food is a major failure; hundreds or thousands of them is a crisis.
- There are some dogs with good taurine result or a good ultrasound on one of the foods you recommend against. That means that food is OK for me to continue to feed.
In any kind of nutritional deficit, there will be many, many members of the population that don’t show any ill effects. Every body is different, and has different ways of showing how well it is nourished. That’s why there are always the stories of cats and dogs living to be 20+ on wallpaper paste and the occasional apple. Some cats and dogs really CAN live on paste and apples, or not very much more than that.
However, “some dogs doing OK” is not the test that a dog food must pass. A properly formulated and tested dog food should have ZERO instances of nutritional disease when it is fed to healthy dogs. That’s the normal, standard bar that a food should be able to get over. A single dog getting sick or dying from a dog food is a major failure; hundreds or thousands of them is a crisis.
- Allergies to ingredients in dog food are very difficult to establish. When a dog has digestive difficulties or dermatitis or other symptoms, it’s often assumed that the dog must be allergic to its food. The owner usually tries a series of food changes until one is found that keeps the dog on a relatively even keel. If the food that works is grain-free, then the “cure” is assigned to the lack of grains. If the food that works is a novel protein, then the “cure” is assigned to the protein.
Unfortunately, there’s almost no way to confirm that the missing ingredient was actually the cure, since dog foods have many ingredients and methods of packaging and preservation. Allergy panels for food are not reliable.
It would be impossible for us to safely recommend foods for dogs with established allergies, and it is also impossible for us to confirm through the computer whether a dog really has an allergy or not.
If you believe your dog has an allergy, you should speak to your vet about doing a short-term hypoallergenic diet and then a systematic elimination diet to establish an exact allergy and recommend a healthy food and brand.
The subject of food allergies comes up often in this group, because some dogs were put on grain-free diets for a presumed grain allergy.
No doubt, some dogs are allergic to certain foods.
The belief might be overstated though if one relies on “testing” of blood, hair, or saliva for this diagnosis.
Veterinary dermatologists repeatedly tell us that the testing does not correlate with what dogs actually react to. Unfortunately the only way to confirm food allergy is an elimination trial.
Here is one example of “testings the tests”. Basically 30 dogs were in the studies. These dogs were fed a variety of foods (including all of the things they would be tested for) and showed no sign of food allergy.
Yet each of the dogs “tested” positive to anywhere from 1-14 foods.
Moral of the story: a food allergy test is probably a waste of money> it would be nice if it worked, because it would be much easier than a diet trial. A food allergy test might also send you down a frustrating path of avoiding things you don’t need to avoid.
- No, you are not. The issue is not and never has been that the food itself is low in taurine; that was established by FDA months ago. Adding more taurine sources will not solve the problem. Talk to your vet about switching to a tested grain-inclusive diet if possible.
- It is extremely unlikely that you can’t find a diet that works well for you and your dog within a brand that meets the WSAVA criteria and is low-risk for DCM. Between the three or four major brands, there are hundreds of formulas and dozens of veterinary therapeutic diets. If you did not like the results on one, talk to your vet about something else, but we don’t think anyone should be sticking with an unsafe diet.
Common objections: Processing/natural/raw
- The issue of herbicides and defoliants used in commercial grain production is a complex one, and we understand that some owners are quite concerned.However, there is no indication that any production method – use of Roundup, whether the crop is “genetically modified,” organic vs. non-organic, etc. – has anything to do with the DCM issue.After all, the diets proven to reverse the disease are generally the most conventionally produced.
We are not anti-raw. Nobody in the admin team and (to our knowledge) nobody working on this issue at UC Davis or FDA are connecting this issue with the fact that a diet isn’t cooked, or is formulated at home.
However, that doesn’t mean that all raw diets are OK. Saying you feed raw is like saying you feed kibble; it’s a description of how the food is cooked, not how good it is.
Our blanket recommendation for raw is going to be exactly the same as it is for kibble: TALK TO YOUR VET. If your vet doesn’t have the background to advise you, get a referral to a veterinary nutritionist (which is not the same as a veterinarian who has interest in nutrition!) or a PhD animal nutritionist.
We will not recommend or allow commenters to recommend raw diets that are not balanced by one or more of these experts. It may well be that your home-designed diet is amazing and perfect, but we can’t analyze that over the internet, and we want to keep the recommendation/analysis conversation between the owner and the vet, just like we do for kibble.
- Maybe it's something else, not the food, like all the vaccines dogs get now or heart worm/flea/tick/mosquito medicine.We now have a substantial number of dogs who have been diagnosed with nutritional DCM and have been treated and the condition completely corrected. The treatment has been a diet change to a major brand with a veterinary nutritionist on staff and, if needed, taurine supplementation.
This cure rate would never have been reached if the root cause of the problem was anything except diet.
- It is true that wolves have a somewhat lower ability to break down grains in their digestive systems, but dogs are not limited in that way. Dogs produce the enzyme amylase, which breaks down starches quite effectively. One of the major biological difference between wolves and dogs, in fact, is this digestive flexibility.
Dogs do not “need” grains, but they can benefit from them. And since formulating with grains is the most time-tested and safe way to make a food that is low-risk for dogs to eat, we support grain inclusions in commercial kibble.
- Many people worry about the “high heat” of the extrusion process somehow destroying nutrients in dog kibble.
We grabbed a couple of videos of a common extrusion machine to show you that while the ingredients ARE heated up and cooked, it’s only for a few seconds. They emerge from the extruder steaming, but able to be touched. They are not burnt or overcooked in any way.
- Haven't more dogs developed (and died from) from cancer and other disorders because of the big foods than have ever been killed by grain-free foods?No.
If we had even the slightest reliable evidence that pet foods were causing cancer, we would never recommend those foods.
- The word “processed” is a reliably scary one, though it’s quite vague. And “live” sounds so much better.
However, there’s very little science there. What’s actually true is that the exact properties of common ingredients in dog foods, such as chicken and beef, corn and rice, are known extremely well. Those ingredients can and do nourish dog bodies, and any nutrients that are lost in the “processing” (cooking) steps are replaced by the post-cooking steps.
There is no evidence that foods need to be “live” or unprocessed to keep dogs healthy.
- There's a link between grains and cancer. Grains = carbs which turn into sugars that cancer thrive on.This is a holistic myth that’s been debunked by science multiple times. It is very true that cancer cells use a tremendous amount of energy and consume a lot of glucose (sugar), but they do so in a way that the body can’t distinguish from the energy needs of all its cells. In other words, the body can’t selectively choose to give less sugar to cancer cells and more sugar to healthy cells. Lowering grain intake won’t starve cancer, unfortunately.
- But corn causes autoimmune diseases, rice has arsenic, canola oil is poison, gluten dumbs dogs down, and...None of those things are true.
We know that worries about those rumors come from the love and concern that we all have for our dogs, but we don’t allow discussion on urban legends or non-scientific myths. Corn, wheat, rice, and food oils are safe dog food ingredients.
Common objections: Conspiracy theories
- Purina does indeed support UC Davis, both financially and in terms of donating support for personnel and infrastructure. From UC Davis:
A dedicated corporate partner of the service is the Nestlé Purina PetCare Company. Their annual commitment of $50,000 for the past 10 years currently helps to fund a nutrition technician and has been instrumental in supporting several residents. Nestle Purina donates $30 million a year to dog-related causes; to our knowledge it is by far the largest contributor in the dog food industry.
However, Dr. Stern’s lab, which is where the study and testing is being done, is receiving and has received zero funding and zero compensation from any corporate interest during this testing process. His statement: “It is a clinical study. All tests that were performed were recommended to the clients and paid for as they were medically necessary to save their lives. This is how a vast majority of veterinary observational studies are done. It isn’t the slightest bit unusual. Other projects in my lab are funded by a variety of grants. Future studies on this topic will likely generate grant support. This study, however, was not.”
- The argument usually goes like this:
Corn is cheap, heavily subsidized, and it’s in the political best interest of the big food companies to push it.
If they see an opportunity to get consumers off a healthier food and back onto corn, they will.
So they invented this whole grain-free thing to scare consumers back onto corn.
Maybe the best response to that is to remind everyone that (to quote Billy Joel) we didn’t start the fire. The warnings came first and foremost from a group of veterinary cardiologists who realized that they were seeing a big spike in DCM cases and narrowed the commonality between the dogs to diet. They went to the FDA, which combined their cases with the FDA’s own cases, researched, and released the advisory.
Dog food companies were not involved at any part of this evidence chain. Neither were corn lobbyists. Neither were our Facebook groups. In addition, there’s a good amount of misinformation in the assumptions of what might motivate “Big Corn.” For one thing, it’s not that cheap. Corn gluten meal is virtually as expensive as chicken meal, when it’s bought the way food makers buy it (by the metric ton). For another, the major foods that cardiologists are recommending people switch to are not especially or exclusively corn-heavy. The curative diets don’t have to include corn and we’ve been given no instructions to look for corn as an ingredient.
- This is absolutely not true.
Some vets carry certain therapeutic diets in their clinics, because getting those diets through other means is so difficult (mail order, etc.). If they carry the therapeutic diets, they will also sometimes carry the adult maintenance formulas as well. However, what vets charge for those diets doesn’t even cover the ordering, tracking, stocking, storage, and time spent on sales. It’s the opposite of a profitable venture.
And no, vets do not get sponsorships or financial kickbacks from food companies.
- Does the FDA have a vested interest in this advisory? Is it trying to help out Purina? Did Royal Canin fund this? Are George Soros or the Koch brothers behind this?No. We all believe that the FDA advisory is factual, neutral, and science-based, not influenced by or connected to any company or interested individual.
- I would never listen to a vet about what to feed - vets have no nutritional training and are just trying to make money off the brands they sell in the their offices.This is false on many levels.Every veterinarian must take nutrition courses, both general knowledge and clinical.These courses are not taught by representatives of the major food companies. They are taught by boarded specialists (diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition) who do research, publish papers, and make new science in nutrition every day.
- You tell us to look for brands that do research, but won't that research be biased in favor of the brand that does it?Yes, you are right to be questioning any brand’s claims about itself. The best inoculant against bias is peer review, which is why we don’t accept research that does not have a clear provenance, and we ask brands to subject their claims to peer review.
In other words, you want to see brands publishing in reviewed journals, not just their own newsletters. Always verify before trusting.