What were once considered good quality pet foods have recently been linked to serious health concerns and death in dogs.

For over a year, the FDA has been releasing warnings to pet owners about reported dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating pet foods known as “grain free” and containing peas, lentils, legume seeds or potatoes as main ingredients. Last week the FDA linked DCM to BEG diets (Boutique/exotic/grain-free.)

DCM causes heart failure. Symptoms include your dog’s reduced exercise abilities, or tiring quickly, and increased breathing rates such as excess panting or coughing, especially after activity.

Many popular brands were listed in the report as well as dogs fed raw, or home-prepared diets. It’s a lot of information to consume. So what is a pet owner to do?

Grab your bag of food and sit down for a quick analysis.

First, read the first six ingredients on the label.

“Meal” or “by-product” are usually ingredients that provide filler to your pet so they feel content but lack actual nutrition. Consider it like feeding fast food every day if listed as the main ingredient, or as a healthy filler if listed in the middle or towards the end. Bad companies use this to save money and good companies use items in the food processing like liver that has to be listed as a “by-product.”

Review the amount of starches like potatoes, green peas, sweet potatoes and beet pulp. These are cheap filler ingredients in many grain-free dog foods. These food ingredients are biologically inappropriate, increase calories and can contribute to obesity, have been linked to DCM and other health issues.

Soy products are also often used in low quality foods as a cheap form of protein. They are difficult for your pet to digest and can lead to health problems.

Carrageenan is a thickening agent used to improve textures. It has no nutritional value and should be avoided completely.

Unless you have worked with your vet to feed a vegetarian diet, meat should be a main ingredient, especially if selecting a grain-free diet. Dogs are primarily carnivores and protein is especially important to their overall health.

Grains are a great source of energy for dogs. Gluten allergies are actually very rare in dogs and most canines can benefit from a diet that includes grains. If you are currently grain-fee without a vet actually recommending this choice, consider switching off such a diet or talking to your vet.

Check for statements that say the food has gone through feeding trials, meaning dogs were fed the food and remained healthy while eating it. If the food has “AAFCO nutritional standards” on the package, it has been tested in feeding trials without a single case of DCM reported.

Look also for words like “minimally processed,” and “natural ingredients.”

Finally, read reviews, call the company and discuss with your vet. Any reputable company with a quality product will be happy to engage with its consumers.

Talk to your vet about the correct amount of protein and moisture for the size, age, and breed of animal you have. Watch for signs of heart disease and encourage your vet to listen for heart murmurs or abnormal rhythms.

Kerry Hacecky is the director of the Heartland Humane Society.

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