Exotic ingredients and boutique brands may also be linked to the healthissues.

Debbie Turner remembers the shock when a veterinary specialist said herbeloved dog, Kanga Lu, had severe heart damage.

For weeks, Kanga had been experiencing odd symptoms, including fatigue,breathing problems and what her local vet assumed were seizures. But nowTurner was being told that the Maltese-Chihuahua mix was in late-stage heartfailure. The seizures, it turned out, had been fainting spells.

“So I’m sitting with what I thought was a healthy 6-year-old dog that washaving minor seizures, and now I find out she might only have three months tolive,” said Turner, 66, of Orlando, Florida. “At that point I felt like I wasin a bottomless pit with no way out.”

The first question the specialist had asked Turner when she brought in Kanga —whose blood pressure had skyrocketed — was, “Do you feed her grain-free dogfood?” The answer was yes.

Turner is one of a growing list of pet owners whose healthy-sounding dog foodmay have somehow led to a serious heart problem in their pets called dilatedcardiomyopathy (DCM).

The Food and Drug Administration last year announced a possible link betweenthe condition, which can cause heart failure, and grain-free pet foods, whichreplace grains with ingredients like peas, lentils or potatoes.

By April, the agency said that it had received 524 reports of 560 dogs and 14cats diagnosed with DCM that appeared to be related to diet. In June, the FDAtook the unusual step of listing the 16 brands of dog food underinvestigation.

It’s still not known exactly how certain pet foods may be damaging pet hearts,but researchers have found some clues. Possible culprits include deficienciesin certain compounds necessary for heart health, as well as diets with exoticingredients.

In dogs and cats developing DCM, the “walls of the heart become thin, and itsability to pump blood decreases,” said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, a veterinarycardiologist and director of the feline health center at the VeterinaryCollege of Cornell. “If this continues, your pet can end up with chronic heartfailure.”

DCM is a known genetic issue for certain large breeds of dogs, including greatDanes, German shepherds and Doberman pincers. But when the FDA andveterinarians around the country started to see dogs of all sizes developingthis kind of heart damage several years ago, they grew alarmed.

The number of cases of DCM are likely to rise, experts say.

“We continue to see dogs coming into our hospital affected by this problem,”said Dr. Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and professor at the CummingsSchool of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “It’s not going away.”

Unfortunately, Freeman said, the solution is probably not going to be a simpleone, and the suspect foods are not just those described as “grain free.” Sheand others are now investigating a broader class of foods, dubbed “BEG” foods:ones that are made by boutique companies, contain exotic ingredients, or aregrain-free.

The FDA echoes Freeman’s concerns about a complex solution.

“At this time, it is not clear what it is about some diets that may beconnected to DCM in dogs, but FDA believes it may be multi-factorial,” saidMonique Richards, an FDA spokesperson. “There are multiple possible causes ofDCM.”

One known cause is deficiency of taurine, an amino acid essential to dog hearthealth, Richards said.

A 2018 study found that 24 golden retrievers with DCM that had been fed grain-free dog food were deficient in taurine. When the dogs were switched over to atraditional food, 23 saw significant improvement, and nine out of 11 of thedogs that had congestive heart failure improved so much that they no longerneeded medications.

But at Freeman’s clinic in Massachusetts, 90 percent of the dogs with DCM havenormal taurine levels. That means there are most likely other pathways toheart damage in dogs consuming BEG diets, she said.

It’s possible that something in BEG foods inhibits how the body uses orabsorbs amino acids, said Dr. William Tyrrell, a cardiologist at CVCA CardiacCare for Pets in Virginia. CVCA is currently working with the FDA on theirinvestigation.

In Tyrrell’s practice, dogs that have been treated for DCM and switched fromBEG diets to a traditional dog food have improved.

“We don’t see a 100 percent reversal, but some get out of heart failure andmany are able to go off diuretics,” Tyrrell said. “That’s not what happenswith dogs that have a genetic cause — those dogs ultimately die of theirdisease.”

A study published this year in the Journal of Veterinary Cardiology backs thatup. The study found that 36 dogs diagnosed with DCM and had normal taurinelevels improved when they were switched from a grain-free food to atraditional diet. Most of the dogs also received taurine supplements, whichthe researchers suspect may have sped up the healing process.

Tyrell believes that ultimately researchers will find that the dogs thatdevelop food-related DCM have a genetic predisposition for the disease thatwouldn’t become apparent unless they were fed a certain type of food.

One scary fact: While some dogs may take years to develop DCM, in others, thecondition can develop quickly.

“The course seems variable,” said Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a professor of clinicalnutrition at the University of California, Davis. “We now know that some takeonly a couple of months. One of the cases in the FDA database was a prettyyoung puppy.”

Source: Linda Carroll NBC News

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