Letter: Boutique dog diet threats are real

Graphic by Lori Deaton

To address Jenna Yarosh Wilson’s concerns [“We Care About Pets and Their Health,” April 24, Xpress] regarding my warning about BEG [boutique, exotic ingredient and grain-free] diets:

The vast majority of dog foods on the market are not tested. There is an important difference between AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] compliant and AAFCO testing. Many foods follow the guidelines, but never undergo feeding trials. The recommended quantities of protein, carbohydrate and minerals are plugged into a computer, and a diet is generated. This is an important distinction. There are only a handful of companies that have the finances and the resources to actually do feeding trials.

Pet stores sell quite a few untested dog foods. … When I visited the [website of a popular pet food], there was absolutely no information about feeding trials. In fact, there was no information about how they formulate their diets at all. There were many buzzwords, however — like natural, holistic and single source, which have no meaning in pet food formulation. When Googled, it appears they may do testing to determine flavor profiles and palatability, but there is nothing about appropriate feeding trials.

There may be a rise in diabetes, cancer and urinary problems. It is also quite possible that we are recognizing disease more. Owners now spend unprecedented amounts of discretionary income on their pets, including yearly and twice-yearly wellness visits, during which illness may be noted. Owner compliance and increasingly sensitive testing play an important role in the detection of disease, as well. Could diet play a role? Absolutely. Correlation does not equal causation, however, and a cause-effect relationship has not been established. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of factors that may contribute to illness. Trying to pin all canine maladies on “high-carb diets” is ridiculous.

Despite the fact that only one [Patton Avenue Pet Co.] customer has reported [dilated cardiomyopathy], I don’t expect that many people dealing with this diagnosis go to their pet store and relate this information. When the FDA issued the warning, only 294 incidences (not 236) were officially reported. This is not because there are so few cases, but because nutritional DCM is so new. Veterinarians are now more aware of it and recommending testing. Due to the cost of echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) and blood testing, many owners opt out and instead monitor their dogs for symptoms. I have this conversation with owners weekly, and most decline testing. The full extent of this problem will not be known for years, but the veterinary community expects it to be big.

The threat of BEG diets, particularly those that do not undergo feeding trials, is very real. I attended a lecture [recently] by a veterinary cardiologist at N.C. State University. She reports that they are seeing new cases of DCM more than once a week — in breeds with no genetic predisposition, such as Shih Tzus, bichon frises, dachshunds and the like. BEG diets are the one unifying factor.

Lastly, I do believe that many working in the pet food industry care deeply about dogs and wish to give pets the best care — just as veterinarians care deeply about their patients. But even with good intentions, mistakes are made.

When you have questions about your dog’s diet, do not seek the opinion of those working in retail stores. Speak with your veterinarian. They know your pet best and can help select the most appropriate diet.

— Dr. Catherine Ashe

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