When being big-hearted is not good in a dog
SILVER SPRING, Maryland––Dogs are supposed to be big-hearted, but not in the literal sense. An abnormally enlarged heart can kill a dog, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on June 27, 2019 warned for the second time in two years, this time linking the warning to consumption of 16 specific premium dog food brands––albeit without identifying a specific causal connection.
Three of the brands of concern are among the U.S. top 10 in sales their respective categories, according to a variety of pet food industry sources.
Warning based on 500 cases
One of the brands, Blue Buffalo, ranks fifth overall in total dog food sales, at $1.275 billion per year, with 1.1% total market share in a field including more than 600 brands.
Another brand of concern, Rachael Ray Nutrish, ranks fifth in kibble sales by brand, at $258 million per year.
A third brand of concern, Nutro, is eighth in kibble sales by brand, at $26.8 million.
Summarized Leanna Faulk and Amanda Watts of CNN, who were first to make the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warning public, “The FDA has investigated more than 500 cases of dilated cardiomyopathy,” as the enlarged heart condition is called, or DCM for short, “in dogs eating certain types of food, according to their statement. DCM is a condition that [affects] a dog’s heart and results in an enlarged muscle. Dogs with DCM tire easily, cough, and have difficulty breathing.
FDA did not seek recalls
“When the FDA first alerted the public in 2018 to cases of DCM,” Faulk and Watts noted, “the agency didn’t mention specific brands, only foods labeled as ‘grain-free’ and containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, and/or potatoes as the main ingredients.”
This time, though, the Food & Drug Administration named names, with a cautionary note that the FDA findings are so far “inconclusive,” and without asking any of the dog food makers to recall their products.
“We have shared case report information with these firms so they can make informed decisions about the marketing and formulation of their products,” said the Food & Drug Administration announcement.
Obscure brands involved in most cases
Other than Blue Buffalo, Rachael Ray Nutrish, and Nutro, the Food & Drug Administration cited only premium dog food brands with relatively limited market share and distribution.
Several obscure brands, however, appeared to be abnormally often involved in DCM case reports.
Acana was named in 67 reports; Zignature in 64, and Taste of the Wild in 53.
Among the three leaders, only Taste of the Wild has ever been subject of a product recall, according to the Petful pet food information web site, founded by former New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Dave Baker, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Assisting Baker are veterinarians Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, and Pippa Elliott, BVMS.
Premium brands 4Health and Earthborn Holistic, each at 32 DCM case reports, but also never recalled, were next, one report ahead of Blue Buffalo, which has been among the most often recalled brands in the U.S. over the past decade.
Other brands on the list that have never been recalled included Nature’s Domain, 29 reports; Fromm, 24 reports; Merrick, 16 reports; California Natural and Natural Balance, 15 reports each; Orijen, 12 reports; Nature’s Variety, 11 reports; and NutriSource, with 10 reports.
Also with 10 reports each were Nutro and Rachael Ray Nutrish.
Champion Petfoods, maker of the Arcana brand, pointed out in a prepared statement that, “Of the 77 million dogs in the US, 0.5% to 1% have DCM, and of those dogs with DCM, fewer than 0.1% are speculated to have DCM related to diet, although it is not scientifically proven.”
But that could still be as many as 77,000 dogs.
Other dog food makers on the Food & Drug Administration defended their products, but basically just by restating marketing claims.
Finished Faulk and Watts of CNN, “If DCM is caught early, heart function may improve in cases not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification, according to the FDA. The FDA says it will continue to investigate the connection and will update the public as information becomes available.”
Commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) moderator and Texas A&M University faculty member Tam Garland, “The definitive cause of canine DCM is a subject of debate, although a number of factors, including nutritional, infectious, and genetic predisposition, have been implicated. The fact canine DCM occurs at a higher incidence in specific breeds suggests a heritable genetic component to this disease, although it is likely its etiology is multifactorial.”
Concerning diet, said Garland, “While [pet food] marketing seems to indicate dogs are carnivores, as they are [taxonomically] classified, they may be more truly omnivores. Study of wild canines killing another animal indicates the intestines, followed by the liver, are most frequently consumed first. Most often the animal being consumed in the wild is a herbivorous animal, perhaps suggesting necessary nutrients from plants are needed in the canine.”
“Breeds predisposed to DCM,” Garland elaborated, “include the Doberman pinscher, the Great Dane, the boxer, and the cocker spaniel. Dietary carnitine deficiency may play a role in some cases of boxer DCM, and taurine-responsive DCM has been identified in cocker spaniels.
Added Garland, quoting from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine web page on DCM, “DCM is characterized by dilation of the ventricles with ventricular wall thinning. In many cases, dilation of all four chambers of the heart is seen. The ability of the heart to serve as a pump is diminished.
“The prognosis for dogs with DCM is variable, depending upon breed and status at presentation,” the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine web page on DCM explains. “The prognosis for Doberman pinschers with DCM, for example, is less favorable than in other breeds, while DCM in cocker spaniels may be relatively slowly progressive.”
The DCM symptoms of easily tiring, coughing, and breathing difficulty are also common in brachiocephalic dogs, including English bulldogs and pugs, but the Food & Drug Administration announcement did not mention other breeds. The 2017 Food & Drug Administration announcement identified only “small breeds” as apparently especially vulnerable.
According to Tim Wall of the trade periodical Pet Food Industry, however, among the 500 dog deaths investigated by the Food & Drug Administration were 95 deaths of golden retrievers, 47 deaths of Labrador retrievers, 25 deaths of Great Danes, 23 deaths of pit bulls, and 62 deaths of “mixed breeds.”
Wrote Wall, “A wide range of dog breeds developed DCM. However, all but the top five appeared in fewer than 20 cases.”
Disease in dogs not routinely tracked
Said the Food & Drug Administration, “Because the occurrence of different diseases in dogs and cats is not routinely tracked, and there is no widespread surveillance system like the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have for human health, we do not have a measure of the typical rate of occurrence of disease apart from what is [voluntarily] reported to the FDA.”
Both of the top-selling pet food brands identified by the Food & Drug Administration, Blue Buffalo and Rachael Ray Nutrish, have been specifically pitched to pit bull owners.
Rachael Ray Nutrish packaging for years featured celebrity cook and talk show host Rachael Ray herself with her own pit bull Isaboo, who reportedly twice injured other dogs and once injured Ray herself.
Blue Buffalo vs. ANIMALS 24-7
Blue Buffalo has since 2013 sponsored Home 4 the Holidays, an October-through-December shelter animal adoption program directed by the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Begun in 1999, Home 4 the Holidays was previously sponsored by Iams.
The Helen Woodward Animal Center advertised the 2014-2015 Home 4 the Holidays program in ANIMALS 24-7 from June 2014 until November 6, 2014, including the Blue Buffalo logo in the ads, but cancelled the ads less than 24 hours after pit bull advocacy web sites announced a boycott of Blue Buffalo for allegedly funding ANIMALS 24-7.
Blue Buffalo both before and after that episode has notoriously often run into product quality controversies.
$41 million settlement
Attorney Steven A. Zalesin, for instance, representing Blue Buffalo, on May 6, 2015 admitted to Judge Rodney W. Sippel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri that Blue Buffalo dog food had long contained poultry byproducts, contrary to advertised claims that it did not.
Responding to a case brought by pet food manufacturing giant Nestlé Purina Petcare, Zalesin blamed the discrepancy on ingredient supplier Wilbur-Ellis.
“We ordered high-priced, high-quality chicken meal. We paid for high-priced, high-quality chicken meal, but that’s not what we got in many instances,” Zalesin said.
Blue Buffalo in December 2015 settled the case by making $41 million available toward making reimbursements to purchasers and covering legal fees and administrative costs associated with making the reimbursements.
Earlier, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus on March 25, 2014 “found Blue Buffalo’s advertisements to be misleading and disparaging against competitors’ products,” Nestlé Purina Petcare summarized in a May 2014 media release.
The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus also “found Blue Buffalo’s advertising deceptive in a 2008 decision,” Purina added.
At that time the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus recommended that Blue Buffalo should stop claiming that it does not use animal by-products “when referencing pet food products that actually do contain animal by-products, such as fish meal, lamb meal, and/or liver.”
The two National Advertising Division verdicts came in response to complaints brought against Blue Buffalo by Hill’s Science Diet, the Colgate-Palmolive subsidiary that is the world’s third largest pet food producer, after Purina and Mars Inc.
Petful documents two Blue Buffalo product recalls in February and March 2017, following one recall each in 2015 and 2016.
Blue Buffalo and ingredient supplier Wilbur-Ellis were also central to the melamine pet food contamination episode that hit the U.S. in December 2006, killing at least 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs in the U.S. alone, according to Food & Drug Administration estimates.
The Banfield veterinary hospital chain put the possible toll far higher, at as many as 7,000 animals.
Wilbur-Ellis in July 2006 began importing melamine-tainted rice protein concentrate from the Chinese supplier Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd., Wilbur-Ellis president and chief executive John Thacher later told MSNBC.
Melamine, a coal by-product, is commonly used to manufacture hard plastics. Because melamine has a chemical signature similar to that of protein, it was illicitly added to grain glutens by several Chinese manufacturers so that pet food ingredient buyers would believe the grain glutens contained much more protein than they actually did.
Wilbur-Ellis resold the melamine-tainted material to five pet food manufacturers, including those supplying Blue Buffalo, Natural Balance, and Royal Canin.