WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. -- A routine vet visit helped save 17-month-old Lucy from heart failure, but her owners and a veterinary cardiologist fear an untold number of dogs across the country could be in danger from grain-free dog foods.
"Our local vet heard a little [heart] murmur," owner Pat Fay of Greeley, Colo. said in an interview with Contact7 Investigates.
Like many pet owners, she simply wanted to feed Lucy some of the best type of dog food she could find and opted for a high-priced, exclusively grain-free diet.
"It's like $80 a bag," Fay said of the Lamb & Apple dog food she purchased, sold under the Acana brand name produced by Champion Petfoods.
But grain-free diets may hurt some dogs more than they help. In Lucy's case, an echocardiogram showed her heart was enlarged – nearly twice the size it should have been – due to a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM.
"To diagnose dilated cardiomyopathy in a 17-month old standard poodle is very atypical," veterinary cardiologist Dr. Allison Heaney said at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital.
Heaney performed the echocardiogram on Lucy.
"Left without medical attention, based on the size of her left atrium [in her heart], I would have expected she'd have gone into failure -- into congestive heart failure -- in three-ish months," she said.
Lucy is now off of her grain-free food and seeing improvement months after the discovery, but she's one of roughly 180 dogs that got the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) attention. It's documenting their progress. It announced an effort over the summer to understand if there's a correlation between heart disease in dogs and grain-free diets -- foods rich in peas, lentils and potatoes.
Much of the concern stemmed from initial research and data gathered at UC Davis, where a veterinary cardiologist and geneticist discovered an alarming trend of golden retrievers suffering from DCM, which is rare in that breed. The dogs had been consuming the same grain-free diets and were found to have low levels of taurine, an amino acid.
Dr. Heaney, who knows the UC Davis researchers, said it's especially important to scientifically prove whether or not there are similar effects in other dogs that are not genetically predisposed to DCM, like in Lucy.
"When you talk to veterinary nutritionists, they have never promoted a grain-free diet," she said. "The only time they would suggest a grain-free diet is in a dog that is documented to be allergic to grains, which is a very small population of dogs."
News of the FDA's interest in the matter has generated concern among dog lovers on social media. But like Dr. Heaney, other nationally-recognized veterinary experts urge caution in drawing conclusions at such an early stage.
"The best people could do right now is not get hysterical, be calm, wait for the proof," Dr. Jean Dodds, a veterinarian based in Southern California said. She wrote of the research in a blog post and explained how individual dogs have individual health needs and risks.
"Every dog is an individual," she wrote, in part.
In Denver, boutique pet food retailers urge patience too.
"We get calls and we get walk-ins all the time," Luke Johnson of Luke & Company Fine Pet Supply said in an interview with Contact7. "I think the important thing we need to remember is that we need a longitudinal, multi-year study that has some significant correlation in order to make a conclusion on this -- a valid conclusion."
Nonetheless, the debate and concerns come as, coincidentally, Champion Petfoods is also facing unrelated litigation in at least seven states – including Colorado. Plaintiffs in the class-action effort claim the company failed to disclose the presence of toxic, heavy metals in its dog foods.
"The basis of it is that consumers were misled by the advertising," attorney Rebecca Peterson, based in Minneapolis, said in an interview with Contact7.
The 68-page case filed in U.S. District Court in Colorado on behalf of a Wheat Ridge woman points to a third-party study, completed as pre-litigation research, that identified lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and Bisphenol A (BPA) in foods. The case argues that none of those ingredients are identified on Champion dog food packaging and labels sold under its Acana and Orijen brands found on store shelves.
"You want to have confidence in what you're reading on those labels, and confidence that ... these pet food companies are providing healthy, superior, safe and pure dog food," Peterson said.
An attorney for Champion Petfoods, through a public relations firm, sent a statement to Contact7 saying, in part, the company "plans to vigorously defend itself against what it believes are factually and legally meritless allegations. Science and common sense are on the side of Champion's premium foods formulated 'As Nature Intended.'"
The company also pointed to a "White Paper" it published that shows the "small amount of naturally occurring heavy metals present in ORIJEN and ACANA diets are well below a level that would pose a danger to pets."
Nonetheless, the mounting concerns on the whole have done little to bring solace to Lucy's family, who fear other dogs may be in danger and that owners may not realize it.
"Just because you think something's good for you, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good for your dog," Fay said.