FDA warning: Don’t eat those peas!

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating a potential link between heart disease in dogs and the consumption of pet food containing peas, among other vegetables.

“We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dogs who ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, and other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients,” said Martine Hartogensis, DVM, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Surveillance and Compliance.

Hartogensis called the reports “highly unusual” because they’re occurring in breeds with no genetic predisposition to DCM.

DCM is a disease of the heart muscle and results in an enlarged heart. As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump, and heart valves may leak, leading to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen. DCM often results in congestive heart failure and is most typically found in large and giant breed dogs such as Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Irish wolfhounds, Saint Bernards, and Doberman pinschers. With the exception of American and English cocker spaniels, the disease is less common in small- and medium-breed dogs.

Red flags went up when reports of recent cases included golden and Labrador retrievers, a whippet, a shih tzu, a bulldog, and miniature schnauzers, as well as mixed breeds.

Early reports from the veterinary cardiology community indicate that the dogs in those cases consistently ate foods containing peas, lentils, other pulses (legume seeds), or potatoes as primary ingredients in their main source of nutrition. The length of time they were on those diets ranged from months to years.

High levels of legumes or potatoes appear to be more common in diets labeled as “grain free,” but it is not yet known how these ingredients are linked to cases of DCM.

Medical records for four of the atypical DCM cases show low whole blood levels of the amino acid taurine. Although not an essential amino acid for dogs, taurine deficiency has been linked to DCM. Taurine is found primarily in muscle meat. It’s completely absent in legumes. One of the dogs in those atypical cases, a Labrador retriever with low taurine levels, is recovering with veterinary treatment, including taurine supplementation and a diet change.

The FDA said that it’s already in contact with the pet food manufacturers that make the foods linked with the sick dogs, but didn’t name them.

Wendy Vlieks, a spokesperson for the Nestle Purina Pet Care Company, makers of Purina brand pet foods and the second-largest pet food maker in the world, told NEWStat that the company has not been contacted by the FDA. “The ingredients referenced in the FDA communication are not typically main ingredients in the vast majority of Purina products,” Vlieks said. “As a leader in pet nutrition, we are taking a proactive role in working with scientists and leading veterinary experts, including cardiologists and nutritionists, to examine this emerging issue.”

In the meantime, the FDA’s Hartogensis said, “We encourage pet owners and veterinarians to report DCM cases in dogs who are not predisposed to the disease.”

If you encounter a case of DCM and suspect that it may be linked to diet, report it to the FDA’s electronic Safety Reporting Portal.

The FDA noted that in cases of DCM that are not linked to genetics, heart function may improve with appropriate medical treatment and dietary modification if caught early.

Photo credit: © iStock/Mutovin

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