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Dilated Cardiomyopathy & Nutrition (School Research Paper)

Dilated Cardiomyopathy & Nutrition (School Research Paper)

This is a school by research by Gabriella Strutin, a student of Animal Science Academy in Morris County School of Technology.

There are several open payments databases online, where anyone can search whether a given company, physician, or facility has accepted payments or endorsements. This allows patients to find out if their doctors are being paid to endorse specific medications, which could point to the possibility of unethical medical practices. Unfortunately, no such database exists for veterinarians.


Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, is a heart disease most common in both dogs and humans. The disease has gained the attention of the public ever since the FDA put out a report in June of 2019 on canine DCM having possible connections to diet, specifically relating to taurine deficiency. Veterinarians are spreading this information to their clients, causing them to change their dogs’ diets. Often, this change can be detrimental. It is important for dog owners to do their own research and read about the situation from both sides of the spectrum before making a decision on their dogs’ diets, since nutrition is vitally important in every aspect of a dog’s life. When it comes to canine nutrition, diet decisions should not be left solely up to veterinary practitioners, as many of these decisions will be biased, whether that be known to the veterinarian or not. The accusation that dilated cardiomyopathy can occur in dogs due to grain-free or “boutique” dog foods is a case with no real evidence, and is a biased study based on ideas that are illogical, benefit commercial dog food companies, and that many people are blindly following. 


    Many veterinarians seem to believe that DCM is caused by dogs eating grain-free foods. Grains, as well as being unnatural for dogs, have no nutritional value to them. Many vets and consumers defend themselves with the logic that dogs are not the same as wolves, which is true: “10 key genes have been identified that demonstrate our domesticated dogs’ increased ability to digest starch” (“What Does Science Say”). Though dogs are proven to be able to digest starch more readily than wolves, the starches that they have evolved to process are in certain vegetables, not grains. Additionally, just because they have the ability to process starch does not mean they should eat it. Fruits and vegetables contain whole carbohydrates, while many of the grains in the big brand dog foods contain white rice and corn meal, which are refined carbs and contribute to weight gain and yeast problems. Therefore, small amounts of fruits and vegetables can be good for dogs, but grains and root vegetables can lead to health issues over time. 


Grains often cause a harmful buildup of yeast and glucosamine in the intestines, which can lead to serious illnesses such as leaky gut syndrome. Julie Ann Lee, a holistic veterinarian, explains that “highly processed, grain based foods containing wheat, rice, spelt and soy” (Lee) are often the culprit in cases of leaky gut syndrome in dogs. Yeast from these grains is also the cause of bad odor, itchy paws, skin irritations, allergenic symptoms, and tear stains, since yeast builds up both internally and externally (Habib). In addition, contaminants in many kibbles have been found to originate from moldy grains such as rice and corn. Pet owners who have dogs on poor quality grain foods often notice these allergy-like symptoms, and they, along with their vets, blame those symptoms on certain meats. However, it is most likely that dogs with skin problems related to food are reacting to the grains in their food, not the meat. Susan Thixton of the Association for Truth in Pet Food writes the following: “when ‘Chicken’ is listed on a pet food label ingredient panel – the ingredient can be USDA inspected and passed chicken, USDA inspected and condemned chicken, whole chicken, chicken bones (no meat), chicken skin (no meat), or a slew of other types of chicken” (Thixton). The USDA’s low standards and the low ethics of certain dog food companies allow low quality meats and animal byproducts to be used as the majority of the protein makeup in kibbles. These poor quality ingredients are known to contain trace amounts of chemicals and anesthesia drugs, which can also be a cause for the allergy symptoms. Many dog owners pin the blame on the chicken or other meats, when in reality, it is the grains and the contents of the chicken and its poor quality that are most likely the cause of these symptoms. 


    Dog owners that believe their dogs are allergic to meats like chicken and beef are often told to change their dogs’ diets to limited ingredient and single protein diets, which were common on the list of FDA DCM complaints. The limited ingredient and single protein diets are not solely the cause of DCM in these situations. Due to pet owners and vets assuming their pets are allergic to certain meats, many owners will only feed their dog one type of meat. The problem here is that dogs have nutrient and vitamin requirements that do not conform to just one source of meat. For example, chicken and turkey are high in the nutrient arginine (“Which foods are high in arginine?”), while pork and tuna, are high in histidine (Whitbread). Both of these nutrients are important and necessary, and different meat sources are necessary to encounter them. Since many  poor quality kibbles tend to have high amounts of meat byproducts as opposed to nutritious meat content, the lack of taurine is very unlikely to be a result of the grain free food or legumes, but the lack of variety in the nutrition of the meat. Feeding a dog only one source of protein for an extended period of time causes nutrient deficiencies, which could result in low levels of taurine.


Another assumption that pet owners are coming to is that legumes are the cause of DCM. Though legumes may not be a good source of taurine, it is not possible for them to reduce the amount of taurine in the meat content of the kibble. Some manufacturers, in order to meet protein requirements in a cheaper manner, include the protein from legumes into the percentage of protein in the total diet. However, higher quality brands of grain-free dog food make sure that there is enough protein from the meat sources to comply with dogs’ nutritional requirements.


    Additionally, the list of complaints posted by the FDA can be misleading. The FDA has posted 517 self-reported complaints involving canines in regard to the Dilated Cardiomyopathy case (“FDA Investigation”). The FDA has admitted that these reports may contain bias, since many pet owners who buy grain-containing foods have not tested their pets for DCM, since the report only called attention to grain-free foods. It is completely possible that DCM is equally apparent in dogs eating grain containing foods, but it has not been researched properly or sufficiently. With all of the chaos started by the Tufts veterinarian, Lisa M. Freeman, all of the focus is on the dogs eating grain-free diets. In fact, some of Tufts Veterinary schools’ largest donors are both Nestlé Purina and Hill’s Pet Nutrition, two big name dog food brands (“Donors to Tufts at Tech”). Many well known veterinary schools are involved in the same situation. For example, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is funded heavily by Hill’s Pet Nutrition (“Honoring”). Moreover, the list of DCM complaints were all self reported, with little to no screening that confirmed the reports to be accurate, leaving another possible margin of error. In fact, 24% of the complaints did not state that the dog was checked for DCM by a licensed veterinarian or had any professional tests done (Strutin). This means that people were self reporting that their dog had the disease without getting confirmation from a licensed professional. Without properly comparing dogs on grain diets and grain-free diets, grain-free diets should not be considered a cause of this serious condition.


    Since Purina, Royal Canin, and Hill's Science Diet fund the education of many veterinary schools, these students often go into their careers endorsing these brands. This creates bias, as well as prevents vets from developing their own opinions on canine nutrition. Some vets even make public that they do not learn enough about proper animal nutrition to be making recommendations. For example, Dr. Karen Becker, a well known veterinarian, says the following: “They don't have enough knowledge to institute innovative nutritional protocols…  the ‘training’ the students receive from these companies is heavily slanted in favor of the products they sell, which are inevitably highly processed” (Dr. Karen Becker). Therefore, it is vitally important for pet owners to research nutrition on their own before taking their vets recommendations.  


    Lastly, many dogs have predispositions to contracting DCM, which was for the most part left out of the FDA report. Certain breeds of dog are known to get DCM, these include: Dalmatians (“Dalmatian”), Schnauzers, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxers, Cocker Spaniels (“Schnauzer”), Newfoundlands, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Irish Wolfhounds (“Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy”), Saint Bernards, Springer Spaniels, English Sheepdogs, Afghan Hounds, Scottish Deerhounds (Carl D. Sammarco), Salukis (“Saluki”), Portoguese Water Dogs (“Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Juvenile”), Basset Hounds (“Basset Hound”), and more. To add, DCM is more common in male dogs, as can be seen by the 61% of male dogs involved in the FDA cases (Strutin). DCM is also known to affect medium and large dogs, and 77% of the dogs in the FDA complaints were over 50 pounds, meaning they were medium to large dogs. Obviously, there are many ways a dog can be predisposed to the disease, so why were these factors not mentioned?


    When it comes to dog nutrition, it is hard to know who to trust. Many veterinary schools are sponsored and funded by corporate dog food companies, which tend to have poor quality dog foods. Since the foods are mass produced, companies like Purina, Royal Canin, and Hill’s Pet Nutrition source their meat as cheaply as possible, so the dogs consuming the food do not get high quality nutriment from it. Poor quality kibble contributes to many health issues, especially when grains are involved. Though grains like rice, wheat, and corn are not indigestible for domestic dogs, they do cause a buildup of yeast, which leads to a variety of problems, both internal and external. The FDA report on canine dilated cardiomyopathy causes unwanted chaos for dog owners, and veterinarians further pushed big brand dog foods, convincing customers that their dogs’ lives were at risk if they did not have grain in their food. It is evident that grains do not contain taurine, the protein associated with these rumors that grain-free food causes a lack of taurine. Many layers of bias and error cover up the fact that the FDA report on DCM had neither a basis, nor a conclusion. So, think twice before deciding what to feed your dog, as a good diet is the foundation of a healthy animal. 


This research paper was written by Gabriella Strutin, a student of Animal Science Academy in Morris County School of Technology. 

Works Cited

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“Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy.” PennVet, PennVet, August 13, 2013 

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