The silent heart disease that is killing dogs


A possible link between expensive pet food and a potentially fatal heart condition, dilated cardiomyopathy, in dogs has left some owners grieving and others angry due to the misleading information from pet food brands.

DCM is a heart disease that decreases the ability of the heart to pump blood through the vascular system.

DCM can be caused by a few different factors, but the main two are nutritional and genetic. If the cause was nutritional, then the DCM in the canine would be from their diet. If it was proven to be genetic, that would mean a dog’s bloodline has had a history of DCM, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Jennifer Gentile was shocked when her relatively young and healthy 4 1/2-year-old German Shepherd, George, suddenly became ill.

On average, German shepherds live between nine to 13 years and are not genetically predisposed to DCM.

George was diagnosed with nutritional DCM in May of 2020. George ate Acana dog food his whole life; this grain-free dog food caused George’s heart failure, according to his veterinarian, Dr. Martin Maketansky.

“He passed away at home,” Gentile said. “He just stopped breathing.”

The breeds that are genetically predisposed to DCM include the Doberman pinscher, Great Dane, boxer and cocker spaniel, according to Medline Plus.

This graph shows that dogs which are not genetically predisposed are having the highest reports of DCM. This means the nutritional side of DCM is causing more issues than even the genetic predisposition to it.

There are many symptoms that come with DCM; however, these symptoms usually do not show up until it is too late to save the dog’s life.

For George, it was a cough that made Gentile worry that there was something wrong.

The possible symptoms of DCM include lethargy, weakness, weight loss, fainting, coughing, increased respiratory rate and abdominal distraction, according to an article by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.

Juliana Demarici lost her 4 ½-year-old mixed breed, Bob, to a fatal arrhythmia associated with suspected nutritional DCM on May 22, 2019, just a week after the dog had been diagnosed.

Bob did not have any genetic predisposition for DCM. While at the cardiologist’s office for a follow-up, Bob passed away.

“He took a step and collapsed. They tried to do CPR, but they just couldn’t bring him back,” Demarici said. “We were in complete shock of what happened. Here was a seemingly very healthy dog running around literally the night before, and then he had progressed so quickly that within one week, he was dead.”

Bob was eating grain-free food just as George was. The brand Bob was eating is called Taste of the Wild, one of the brands named most frequently in DCM cases reported to the FDA.

Demarici took Bob to a cardiologist at a satellite office of University of California Davis in San Diego for an echocardiogram, an image of the heart’s movement. After waiting three hours, the cardiologist asked Demarici what she had been feeding him.

Dr. Joao Orvalho, a veterinarian at UC Medical Center, explained that he suspected Bob was on a grain-free diet. Orvalho told Demarici that cardiologists had been seeing an uptick in vet visits for dogs who were being fed grain-free diets. Orvalho also said that most of the dogs they had seen were diagnosed with DCM during their vet visit, yet most of them were not genetically predisposed to DCM.

The FDA is investigating the link with DCM in dogs eating certain pet foods, many labeled as “grain-free,” which contain a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses) and/or potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.) as main ingredients, according to the FDA.

Diane Denman’s golden retriever, Odin, was diagnosed with nutritional-mediated DCM in September 2017.

“I would lay awake, night after night, just to listen to him breathe and to make sure he was still alive,” Denman said.

Odin was 2 1/2 years old at the time of his diagnosis. Denman heard about DCM through her dog breeder and felt she needed to get Odin tested for DCM.

“I waited two agonizing, tearful weeks for those test results to come back,” Denman said.

When she finally got the call saying Odin had moderate to severe DCM, her next step was to take him back to the veterinarian for an echocardiogram.

Odin was diagnosed by the collaboration of Steve Safris and Caryn Paulin at Westfield Veterinary Hospital. The veterinarians stated that there were no signs of genetic DCM and that it was nutritional.

Denman reached out to all of Odin’s litter mates and asked if any of them had DCM. She knew there was a possibility it could be genetic. Hearing that none of the other dogs had DCM confirmed to her that Odin’s DCM was nutritional.

Odin ended up being one of the lucky ones. He was able to survive nutritional DCM. However, his road to full recovery has been long and is not over yet.

He currently resides in Iowa with Denman and her partner, Cathy Graham.

At the time of Odin’s diagnosis, he was eating Fromm’s grain-free pork and peas recipe. The main ingredients in this food are pork, peas, pork broth and sweet potatoes.

Odin’s long recovery consisted of no exercise, because it would be too straining on his heart, as well as 10 different medications and changing his food from Fromm to something that was not listed as having a potential link to DCM.

Denman and Graham chose to change his food to Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin and Stomach Salmon and Rice Formula. The main ingredients in this food are salmon, barley, rice and oatmeal.

After a year and a half of monitoring Odin and regular veterinary visits, he is now considered recovered but still receiving treatment. The only medication Odin is taking now is taurine supplements.

Denman said Odin now has energy again, where he did not before, and he is his old self again. The only thing that was not fully reversed was his weakened heart wall, which may never fully go back to normal.

Denman reported Odin’s medical records to the FDA, and they listed him in their public records. She also reached out to the dog food company Fromm, but they were unresponsive. They said they would call her back but never did. She sent Odin’s story to them in every way she could think of — text, email and postal mail — but did not hear anything in return. She also put Odin’s story on Fromm’s Facebook page, but it was deleted by the company shortly after she had posted it.

Denman reaches out to as many people as possible to spread the word about DCM and tell Odin’s story.

“If he had gone into the vet two weeks later, he would have died,” Denman said.

Denman is currently on an international board for DCM, trying to prevent as many deaths as possible.

Between Jan. 1, 2014, and July 31, 2020, the FDA received more than 1,100 case reports of diagnosed DCM in dogs. Within these cases, some involved more than one animal from the same household and more than 280 of those dogs were reported to have died.

Not all dogs who had DCM were reported to the FDA, making the real number unknown.

On Dec. 28, around 2:30 a.m., Moti, a 6-year-old black Labrador retriever, passed away in his sleep.

“We heard him take his last breath, and by the time we got to him he was already gone. There was nothing we could do to bring him back,” Jasneet Singh said.

Moti was diagnosed with severe DCM last year. His heart was three times bigger than what is considered a normal heart size. He had fluid in his lungs and was already in congestive heart failure, according to Dr. Christopher Whipp at Alta Vista Animal Hospital in Ontario, Canada.

Moti started showing symptoms in September. He was coughing, and he fainted. After seeing two veterinarians with no answers, Moti’s condition worsened. Moti started fainting more regularly, and he also started seizing.

During one of Moti’s seizures, Singh’s sister had to hold his head away from the wall so he would not injure himself, according to Singh.

Moti passed away a couple of months after his DCM diagnosis, at 6 years and 7 months old. An average lifespan of a Labrador retriever is 10 to 12 years old.

Singh said Moti was eating grain-free Nutrient Ocean Fish formula, a Canadian dog food brand, when he was diagnosed.

“This food should not have even been put on the shelf,” Singh said.

When Moti was diagnosed, Singh did everything in her power to reverse it. Moti was on multiple medications that added up to 30 pills a day.

Moti started acting more like himself after being on the medication and switching his food. During the last two weeks of his life, he was doing great. He was coughing less and had a lot more energy than he did before. But that did not stop his death.

The FDA has not initiated any recalls for these food brands, according to a question and answer section on DCM which appears on the FDA’s website. Officials stated that most of the food brands have been changing their formulas, which is why the FDA chose to not yet recall any.

One of the pet food brands has spoken out about the potential link between food and DCM. Fromm released their response on July 1, 2019, stating they acknowledge Fromm is listed as a brand that is potentially causing DCM in dogs. However, Fromm said it is complex and because of this it is hard to pinpoint the exact thing that is causing DCM.

Fromm stated that they have changed their formula by supplementing taurine in the diets that were potentially causing DCM.

The potential issue with adding taurine to this food is that not all cases of DCM are related to low taurine levels, according to a study done by University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The key associations with both taurine deficient and non-taurine deficient forms of DCM was that many dogs were being fed some variety of boutique, exotic ingredient or grain-free diets, according to an article by UC Davis.

The FDA has chosen to keep all the information they have on their website, such as food brands that have had the most common potential link, rather than doing recalls at this time.

Jackson, a golden retriever, was diagnosed in August 2019 with occult DCM mild, occult meaning no symptoms. He was 3 years old at the time of his diagnosis and 4 years old when he was considered fully recovered.

Jackson, now 5 years old, and his owner, Tonya Eliason, live in North Bend, Washington.

Jackson is an active dog. He runs champion agility courses, swims nonstop, plays frisbee all the time and hikes everyday, Eliason said, and he was still doing all of this when he was diagnosed.

Eliason said she chose to get Jackson an echocardiogram when she saw the FDA reports that came out about DCM. Jackson did not have any symptoms, but he was eating a grain-free diet.

“We were horrified when we saw that the food we were feeding, Orijen, was on the list of suspect diets,” Eliason said.

Eliason looked further into Jackson’s diagnosis by going through five generations of health records to see if anyone in his bloodline had DCM in the past. Each dog in his bloodline had an echocardiogram and the results showed that no other member of Jackson’s bloodline has had DCM. This confirmed that Jackson’s DCM was diet-related.

After being diagnosed by board-certified cardiologist, Dr. Jerry A. Woodfield, Eliason contacted board-certified veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Freeman to discuss Jackson’s diet.

Jackson was being fed Orijen when his DCM formed. Orijen is a grain-free food that is listed as one of the foods having the potential link to DCM, according to the FDA. Orijen Original Grain-Free dog food includes peas and lentils, ingredients the FDA has linked to nutritional DCM.

“We thought we were feeding the best … I fell for all the hype,” Eliason says. “I was horrified to learn that there is no requirement to create dog food. Anyone can do it with zero animal nutrition knowledge. I think that is wrong, and I hope that it changes.”

For example, Dog Food Advisor is a clickbait site run by a retired human dentist with no actual expertise in dog food.

“It is scary seeing the people who write articles on dog food, because most of the time they are not qualified to give this advice,” Eliason said.

Freeman informed Eliason of certain foods that she recommended Jackson eat. Eliason followed this recommendation and chose to feed Jackson Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin and Stomach Salmon and Rice Formula.

Jackson was not prescribed any heart medication because he had no symptoms. The only change Eliason and the veterinarians made was changing Jackson’s food.

After a year and four months, Jackson’s echocardiogram showed his heart had fully reversed and was normal. Due to the reversal of his heart by a diet change alone, the cause of Jackson’s DCM was nutritional.

Eliason wants others to avoid the mistake she made and encourages others to talk to professionals before deciding on dog food.

The FDA is still working on getting a better understanding of nutritional DCM and “welcomes additional contributions from other scientists.”

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