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Do certain dog foods cause heart disease? Tampa Bay dog owners wait for answers.

Krista Schmidt, owner of St. PetersBARK, in front of her St. Petersburg market for dog and cat food. [BEN LEONARD | Times]
Published Aug. 2

ST. PETERSBURG — People have been coming into Krista Schmidt's dog food store in tears.

Schmidt, the owner of St. PetersBARK natural pet market, understands why they're so upset.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently identified several dog food brands that may be tied to heart disease in dogs.

The agency is investigating a potential link between "grain free" dog foods and canine dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that often leads to congestive heart failure. Federal officials haven't finished the investigation but decided to list the food brands most frequently cited in reports of the disease out of an "obligation" to transparency.

Dog owners promptly freaked out when they heard the news. And that's how Schmidt's pet market turned into a place for dog owners to fret and worry and vent.

Some wanted to switch dog foods immediately. Many people were more skeptical came into the store looking for St. PetersBARK's take on the report. She's telling the owners not to panic yet.

"It's just such a shame that something like this has been released preemptively without conclusive information for us to react smartly and rationally to," Schmidt said.

THE LATEST: Read the latest update into the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's investigation of canine heart disease and certain diets.

GOT QUESTIONS? The FDA answers your questions this possible link and the health of your dogs.

The federal report noted that more than 90 percent of dogs with the disease reported to the agency had "grain free" dog food or products with peas and/or lentils.

"The issue is that there are a lot of dogs being fed diets with peas and lentils now," said Dr. Richard Hill, a University of Florida professor, veterinarian and president of the board of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

"It's one of those things that seems to be a possible associate, but I'm not aware of any statistics saying there is a strong association between peas and lentils."

• • •

Stacey Mazza-Gilkison of Sarasota thinks a "grain free" dog food named in the agency's report may have killed her miniature dachshund, Alfie. Her dog was diagnosed with a heart murmur at age 11 in 2017 and died a year later.

The Food and Drug Administration says that smaller breeds are less likely to be genetically prone to the heart disease. Veterinarians didn't diagnose Alfie with dilated cardiomyopathy, but heart murmurs can be a symptom of the disease, so that's what makes Mazza-Gilkison believe it was. They didn't make the connection between her dog's food and heart condition.

"I can't definitely say it was the dog food," Mazza-Gilkison said. "But it's just way too much of a coincidence."

After Alfie died, she said she spoke to three different Dachshund owners whose dogs also ate "grain free" food and were diagnosed with a heart murmur. Then she read about the federal investigation after Alfie died.

"I was heartbroken," she said. "If I had that I read that before he died, it could have gotten it reversed.

"Reading it afterwards, it ticks me off that it could have been something that I was feeding him that killed him."

She reported Alfie's condition to the federal agency on Thursday and no longer feeds her dogs "grain free" food.

A lot of people coming into St. PetersBARK switched their dogs off "grain free" food, but Schmidt says there is still skepticism about the link between "grain free" food and the disease. Of those she's talked to, about half of concerned dog owners are switching and half aren't.

She says the report has caused a lot of confusion and doesn't provide enough information to help pet owners make decisions.

But St. PetersBARK is adjusting its products in response to the report. Schmidt added an Italian-made "grain-in" food made with ancestral grains like spelt and oats. She is mulling adding more grain-containing options, but space is limited, She also wants to add more raw food choices for dogs.

• • •

Local dog owners who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times about the issue said they're feeling everything from concern to resignation.

Ella Gunnin and her husband Nick of St. Petersburg switched their two 5-year-old pitbull terrier mixes, Onyx and Charlie, off grain-free food after their veterinarian told them to get off of it due to the reported heart problems. She isn't worried much about the future consequences — but not because she's hopeful.

"I'm not really concerned because there's not a lot we can do," she said.

Fellow St. Petersburg resident John McHoul used to feed his 18-month-old Italian Mastiff, Cane Coiso, raw chicken. But that polarized veterinarians, so they stopped.

They now feed Cane Coiso grain-free food because his wife wanted to, and isn't concerned about the effects of grain-free food. McHoul said he buys a variety of "quality" food for his dog.

Not everyone knows about the controversy, however. St. Petersburg's Peggy Craig and her two Weimaraners, Dug, 2, and Brody, 9, said she wasn't sure if the food she feeds her dogs is grain free or not. She also hadn't heard about the agency's report, blaming the paywalls used by news organizations online.

Still, she wasn't surprised.

"Everything we eat has cancer-causing things in it of course because the production of food in the US is questionable, Craig said, "So it's not surprising it's similar for dogs as well."

No one is quite sure what might be causing the disease in the animals suspected to be afflicted by diet, Hill said, so it is hard to make specific recommendations on what to do.

"It's not clear if it's associated with the diet and if it is the diet, what is causing it," Hill said.

Hill suggested people check with their veterinarian if their pet is showing signs of heart disease, such as tiring more quickly than usual while exercising.

"That of course is difficult to assess in the heat of Florida," Hill wrote in an email, "But if the dog does have (canine dilated cardiomyopathy), then a change of diet may be indicated."

Contact Ben Leonard at bleonard@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.

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