We May Have a Pea Problem

Ever find yourself wishing that the FDA could complete its business in a little more timely fashion? I know I do. I’ve been telling people in exam rooms for years now that there is something wrong with grain-free dog food, but the FDA hasn’t quite put their finger on it yet.

In case you had to miss our previous piece on grain-free dog diets and heart problems, vets started to see an uptick in cases of heart failure (a specific kind, called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM) in 2018. Now, DCM isn’t an especially rare disease, but it does tend to be restricted to certain breeds of dog. These new cases were popping up all over the place, in unexpected breeds and in mixed breed “mutts” as well. Some brilliant person made the connection that many of these new heart patients had been eating the newly popular grain-free diet at home. More firepower was needed, so the Food and Drug Administration got involved. The number of heart failure cases reported to them was snowballing, so they were able to compile a list of implicated food brands in 2019. However, two years have passed and I’m still unable to clearly explain the problem to my clients. We knew that not all grain-free foods seemed to damage the heart muscle. We did not know which food ingredient (or lack thereof) could be blamed for the condition, thus preventing pet food manufacturers to correct the issue. The FDA investigation ground laboriously forward.

Last month, this safety issue celebrated its third birthday, and a new piece of information has finally emerged. Scientists had been analyzing upward of 800 compounds found in various canine diets and comparing their levels in different dog foods. Several layers of statistical analysis showed that foods on the “problem list” contain relatively higher levels of certain compounds (particular amino acids, for example) and diminished levels of others (such as B vitamins). Scientists used this information to create a sketch of the likely culprit, and the image that emerged was one of ...a pea.

Yes, the humble pea has been implicated in this rash of canine heart failure cases, but it is not time to panic. I can assure you that the average pea poses no threat to your dog. Perhaps we’ll find that there is an upper limit to daily pea consumption or that increased dietary pea content is only risky for certain pets. Maybe an accomplice will be identified. I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

Progress at the FDA can seem slow and ponderous, but I must say I appreciate a thorough approach to health problems. The time and attention to detail they’ve put into this—and other issues of our time—help to keep us all safe, free from unsubstantiated claims and wild finger-pointing. And their meticulous work has yielded, at last, a shred of something (very) slightly more intelligent for me to tell my clients:

“So...they think it has something to do with peas.”

Dr. M.S. Regan