Local dog owners, veterinarians warn about link between dog food, heart problems

Hundreds of dogs are getting sick and some are dying. Veterinarians tell Boston 25 News their dog food may be to blame.

The dogs developed a heart disease that vets have linked to their diet called dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM.

Brookline resident Trisha Brenner’s dog Charlie is dying of DCM.

"Things are not looking good, it’s likely he could pass away at any time," Brenner told Boston 25 News reporter Elysia Rodriguez, who has been looking into this issue for months.

Last fall Charlie collapsed while on a walk. Charlie’s vet didn’t immediately search for heart issues because they aren’t common in young Weimaraners.

Charlie’s vet told Brenner, he believes the likely cause was his food.

"He was on the grain-free diet," Brenner said.

The FDA began looking into the connection between grain-free diets and DCM last summer. The FDA has not asked manufacturers to make any changes as they investigate, but they are asking vets and pet owners to report any cases of DCM that may be connected to diet.

MSPCA Angell Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Julia Lindholm says researchers still don't know why it's happening.

But she says the leading theory is the dogs' food is preventing them from producing taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that is vital for heart health in dogs. Taurine deficiency can cause DCM.

The food in question is sold by different brands, but has at least two of these factors in common: It was produced by a small manufacturer.

It used exotic meats, including everything from rabbit to kangaroo.

It was grain-free, using peas, lentils or potatoes as the main ingredient.

"Grain-free sort of came about as a fad in human food," Dr. Lindholm said. "It’s easy to sell a diet that’s grain-free and 'we only put those 7 ingredients in there,' it sounds really good but unfortunately there’s just no science behind doing it."

Lynne Emerson of Billerica admits she fell for the marketing.

"I chose this food that I thought was great, I actually paid more for it.  I actually say I paid a higher price for what ultimately cost me the ultimate price," Emerson told Rodriguez.

Her service dog, Matilda, was raised on a grain-free diet and was diagnosed with DCM last summer. Her case has been linked to her diet because once it was changed, she started getting better.

Charlie's family is just trying to enjoy his last days.

"It’s been devastating," Brenner said with tears in her eyes. "I take comfort in that I am doing everything I can to help other people because if we can save just one more dog or help one more person it will be worth everything we have gone through."

Boston 25 News reached out to the Pet Food Institute to comment on the FDA investigation. Its members make up 98% of pet food products. They issued this statement:

"PFI members take seriously their commitment to providing safe pet food that contains complete and balanced nutrition. Our members support the exchange of information with FDA and member company scientists, veterinarians and nutritionists are working closely with the agency to further advance the understanding of this issue."

Lindholm recommends consulting with your vet before trying a grain-free diet.