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Is A Grain-Free Diet Deadly For Dogs? Gephardt Digs Into The Science

HOLLADAY, Utah – Willow, a standard poodle, was just five years old when she died, leaving her guardians, Katerina and Mike Hicken, shocked.

“Willow had no signs that she was sick until mid-June,” said Katerina. “She started to develop a cough. Besides her cough, you would never know. She was literally the most active, funniest, biggest personality dog.”

At first, the veterinarian diagnosed Willow as having kennel cough but when treatment failed to lessen symptoms, she was brought back for an echocardiogram. It revealed Willow had dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM – a disease where the heart muscles wear thin, eventually causing the heart to fail.

Willow’s heart was broken, which broke her family’s heart.

“It’s not a human life that we lost,” said Mike, but “It feels like it, absolutely feels like it,” finished Katerina.

Willow’s Owners Believe Her Death from Heart Failure was Caused by her Grain-Free Dog Food Diet

A Broken Heart Disease

After Willow died, the Hickens began looking into DCM cases.

Heart disease can be hereditary in dogs, so the Hickens said they checked with Willow’s breeder.

“Is there anything in her blood line that would indicate that she could have genetically gotten this (DCM) and all of them said, ‘No,’” said Katerina.

After spending several weeks researching online, the Hickens found what they believe to be a common denominator between her death and the deaths of many other dogs all over the country: grain-free dog food.

Grain-free dog food

“We thought, ‘Hey, let’s switch to a healthier alternative of organic grain-free dog food,’” said Mike, “making the assumption that the dog food companies have done the research and done the testing and know that this is the proper nutrition your dog needs.”

Science Behind The Diet

The KSL Investigators took Willow’s story to Utah State University’s Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences Department.

Kara Thornton-Kurth has made a career of studying and teaching the science of animal feed. She told us she was not surprised by Willow’s fate.

USU Veterinary Sciences Instructor and Research Kara Thornton-Kurth Says Studies Have Shown a Link between Grain-Free Dog Foods and a Dilated Cardiomyopathy, a fatal heart disease.

“There have been a number of reports that grain-free dog foods are actually leading to dilated cardiomyopathy which can cause heart failure,” said Thornton-Kurth. Some of those reports have come from the Food and Drug Administration, which has been studying the potential link between the disease and a pet’s grain-free diet.

The FDA reports they have seen a spike in cases. Last year, the agency went so far as to name 16 brands of grain-free dog food linked to sick dogs, although it stopped short of an outright ban on the pet food or even warning pet owners against buying it.

On its website, the agency writes, “the potential association between diet and DCM in dogs is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors,” and that “The FDA is working with the pet food industry to better understand whether changes in ingredients, ingredient sourcing, processing or formulation may have contributed to the development of DCM.”

“To be completely honest with you,” said Thornton-Kurth, “We don’t fully understand why the grain-free dog food is contributing to this.”

She believes the answer could possibly lie in what ingredients are often added to grain-free foods as alternative carbohydrates.

“Things like peas and lentils and legume seeds,” said Thornton-Kurth.

Scientists are currently investigating if replacements like legumes and lentils contribute to a deficiency of an amino acid called taurine – a symptom usually found in dogs with DCM. But so far, there is no definitive answer.

Pet Food Industry Responds

The KSL Investigators reached out to the Pet Food Institute, which represents pet food makers in Washington, D.C. They insist those added ingredients in grain-free foods are safe and that “millions of dogs eat and are thriving on grain-free dog food.” Their website addresses the FDA investigation, stating, “It is important to note that the FDA has not determined if there is a dietary link to the development of DCM and does not recommend any dietary changes based solely on the information gathered so far.”

Willow’s Legacy

The scientists the KSL Investigators spoke to say the numbers of dogs dying from heart disease is likely underreported. Unlike with humans, when a dog dies young, there doesn’t tend to be a lot of digging to figure out the cause.

The Hickens want to see grain-free pet foods removed from store shelves.

But until there is scientific consensus, they hope sharing their story is enough to spare other families from similar heartaches.

“I think consumers are not educated,” said Mike. “I had no idea what nutritional DCM was until six weeks ago.”

“We don’t want anybody to have to go through this,” added Katerina. “It’s the most heartbreaking, preventable tragedy that can happen.”

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