Fear and Confusion in Dogland: Our Take on the DCM Controversy

Updated: Mar 16

Update 3/15/21: It looks as though the FDA has walked back their initial reporting on food-related canine DCM and grain-free foods as of September 2020. Check out this article with details on the update from Ryan Yamka, PhD, via here.

Please Note: Since we initially published this blog, the FDA has issued an additional headline grabbing update. The new information, including the names of 16 companies that are radically different from ours, does not substantively change anything we have to say on the matter. To date nothing is known regarding the link between diets flagged in this investigation and DCM and any dietary advice you may be receiving on this front is based on pure speculation. Whole Dog Journal provides a good wrap up of the newest data, check it out (after you read this ;-).

I just got off the phone with another customer. She loves our food. Her dog is healthy and thriving in every way, but suddenly she is afraid. She is afraid because her vet gave her a handout admonishing against “boutique, exotic, or grain-free” foods, suggesting instead a food sold through his practice, and recommending that patients invest in various cardiac diagnostic tests. At first I can barely mask my exasperation as I do my best to allay her fears with facts. We speak for a while. By the end of the conversation, we are laughing together, and she feels more educated and empowered than she had been at the start of the call. Lately I have been through countless iterations of the same discussion over the phone and through email.

This sudden increase in fear-based consumer interaction is due to a series of events: the statistically significant uptick over the past four years in cases of non-hereditary Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM); a research study that established a correlation to specific dietary factors; the ensuing FDA investigation; the press it has all generated; and a dissemination of the facts surrounding it that resembles the elementary school game of “telephone.”

After hours spent responding personally to customers and researching the developments and data in the ongoing FDA DCM investigation, we’d like to take a moment to shed light on how the identified DCM factors relate to Evermore and how these DCM cases fit into a larger perspective.

What is DCM?

DCM, also known as enlarged heart, is a fatal cardiac disease that leads to congestive heart failure. Symptoms can include lethargy, shortness of breath, and a loss of appetite, but sometimes sudden death can occur in dogs who appear healthy. Its root causes are unknown, but it is believed to have a genetic component and is common in large, barrel-chested breeds like Dobermans, Great Danes, and Boxers. Since 2001, there has also been evidence of a dietary link revolving around taurine, a beta-amino sulfonic acid (often referred to as an amino acid) that is particularly important in this context for its role in normal heart function and fat digestion. Whole Dog Journal does a much better job of explaining this than we ever could, so we urge you to read this article, as it will help ground our information and opinions.

Why Now?

While a dietary link with DCM is not new information, there has recently been a notable uptick in cases that appear to have a nutritional component. Dogs of breeds that historically have not been known to develop DCM were suddenly developing the condition. Back in 2017, Dr. Josh Stern, a veterinary cardiologist and Golden Retriever enthusiast at UC Davis, began to see a growing trend of Goldens being diagnosed with DCM at the UC Davis hospital. His initial research indicated a correlation between twenty-four Golden Retrievers with DCM and certain popular grain-free diets with high legume and/or potato contents.

Dr. Stern has been collaborating with Dr. Lisa Freeman of Tufts University, Dr. Darcy Adin of the University of Florida, and others to further understand this link, and they are sharing their findings with the FDA, which announced its own investigation into the potential link to diet and DCM in July 2018. There has been a lot of press surrounding this, and a few experts loudly and publicly broadcasting their opinion that anyone feeding a diet that could be categorized as “Boutique, Exotic or Grain-Free” (cleverly acronymed BEG) had better switch to one of five major brands or else they would be putting their pet at risk for developing DCM (one of those brands, Hill’s Science Diet, coincidentally being in the midst of a huge recall for products with vitamin D overages that are alleged to have killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of dogs).

As the press ramped up, we started getting tons of emails and calls. Suddenly vets were saying that grain-free food was inherently dangerous simply because it was grain-free, regardless of what ingredients comprised their recipes in what proportions; that perfectly healthy dogs should change their diets to foods that may be inferior in other regards, but at least they contain grains and are made by the biggest players in the game; that the only way you can safely feed your dog is if other dogs have been bred specifically for the purpose of living their whole lives in a laboratory setting and undergoing nutritional experimentation to prove the merit of a food. However, there is nothing in the data that the FDA has shared that leads to these conclusions in a logically sound fashion.

What the FDA Says

The FDA initially announced its investigation in July 2018; on February 19th of this year, it issued an update that summarizes the current findings on its website. Between January 1, 2014 and November 30, 2018, there were 325 reports of non-hereditary DCM to the FDA. The two charts and excerpted text below are useful (as is the rest of the information they provide in the update), but there are certainly holes in the information being presented to the public.

“Review of the canine reports shows that the majority of reports were for dry dog food formulations, but raw food, semi-moist food, and wet food were also represented.”

Dog Food Formulations in DCM Reports

“Based on analysis of the 196 DCM reports to FDA in which dogs were fed only a single, primary diet (i.e., didn’t eat multiple food products, excluding treats), approximately 90 percent of the foods were reported to be labeled “grain-free” (or labeled as zero-grain) and approximately 10 percent ate diets containing grains, some of which were vegan or vegetarian. A large proportion of the reported diets in DCM cases contained peas and/or lentils.”

Common Ingredients in Reports with Single Primary Diet

“Animal protein sources in the reported diets varied widely. Of the 191 reports with a single primary diet that contained animal protein (rather than being vegan/vegetarian), 31 percent contained more than one animal protein source. The majority of diets containing animal protein included fish, eggs, lamb or chicken. No one animal protein source was predominant.”

According to the FDA, these diets "frequently list potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other 'pulses' (i.e., edible seeds within a legume, including peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas), and their protein, starch and fiber derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients." The FDA does not provide a definition for what constitutes a main ingredient, rather a description that it may appear