SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- Some Bay Area pet owners were stunned to hear the news: their seemingly healthy dogs suddenly diagnosed with a potentially deadly heart disease.
Now there's growing concern that these cases may be possibly linked to certain ingredients found in a trendy type of dog food.
Researchers at UC Davis are investigating the heart of the matter to shed light on the problem.
Home is where the heart is, and in this East Bay home, a Golden Retriever named Baker is the heart. Just ask Baker's owner, Sandy Carlevato.
"He's my buddy, is what he is. He's like my child. Huh Baker?" laughed Carlevato as she hugged the beautiful dog.
However, last year, it seemed Baker could not catch his breath. He was continuously and excessively panting. Worried for his health, Carlevato took him to the ER.
She was shocked to hear he was in heart failure.
"He was only 5. How can a dog get heart failure?" asked Carlevato. "And I told the vet, 'This isn't right! He can't have heart failure. There's no way!'"
In the South Bay, a similar situation unfolded for Jamie Warren and her three gorgeous Golden Retrievers Suva, Reef and Fiji. All three dogs came from championship lines
"They're part of my family. they are my family now." explained Warren.
In March 2017, Suva had trouble breathing. Warren noted how weird it sounded. She knew something was not right.
A trip to the vet revealed fluid in her lungs and belly, as well as an enlarged heart
"The vet said, 'You need to go to emergency, now! Do not go home!'" she recalled. At the ER, tests revealed the 3-year-old Suva was also in heart failure.
"I couldn't believe it," said Warren.
Then 7-year-old Fiji fell ill with heart failure. 2-year-old Reef seemed fine, but tests showed his heart was weakening.
Stunningly, each one of Warren's dogs had heart clearance to compete at dog shows. Not only that, these dogs had no family history of heart disease.
"It was a mystery. There had to be something else going on," stated Warren.
In the final diagnosis, it was determined that all four dogs had a heart condition called "dilated cardiomyopathy" or DCM for short.
DCM can lead to heart failure, arrhythmia and even sudden cardiac death.
Both Warren and Carlevato were told their dogs did not have long to live: maybe three to four months at best.
It was puzzling. With DCM, only certain breeds like Great Danes, Boxers, the Newfoundland, the Saint Bernard, and Doberman Pinschers are known to inherit it. Dogs who don't typically inherit DCM include Golden Retrievers.
What did these dogs have in common were some ingredients found in their pricey dog food.
"Peas, garbanzo beans red lentils, legumes," said Warren.
"A lot of lentils, green peas and things like that," said Carlevato.
The dogs all ate a grain-free diet that contained high levels of peas, lentils and other legumes, as well as potatoes.
So far, UC Davis has seen more than 50 of these cases: dogs with DCM who ate the same kinds of ingredients.
"I think we need to take it seriously and think about what's going on with our pet food," said Dr. Joshua Stern. Stern is a veterinary cardiologist, geneticist and lead investigator on several studies involving DCM in canines and a possible link to diet.
Stern began to see an uptick in these cases about two years ago. He told KPIX that he continues to screen for and diagnose DCM weekly in his clinic.
UC Davis Veterinary Nutritionist Dr. Jennifer Larsen is also involved in the investigations.
"It's very important that owners know what our concerns are," said Dr. Larsen.
Recently, Stern headed up a study involving 24 Golden Retrievers with DCM. Many ate a diet labeled as grain-free.
All had low levels of taurine in their blood. Taurine is an amino acid that is critical for heart health.
"We've known for a very long time that dilated cardiomyopathy can be caused by nutritional deficiency in taurine," explained Stern.
In this study, Stern changed the diets of all 24 dogs and treated them with taurine supplements in addition to prescription drugs.
As a result, taking those steps led to 23 of the 24 dogs getting better.
The good news is that, if caught early enough, DCM may be reversed or the progression stopped in dogs. He shared this information with other veterinary cardiologists and the FDA.
"Reef is almost totally reversed. Almost totally. The girls are almost there," said Warren.
Baker is now off all of his prescription medications.
"He isn't 100 percent, but maybe he will be some day" said Carlevato of her beloved dog.
Based on the work of Dr. Stern and other veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists, the FDA is now investigating the problem.
The agency issued an alert on July 12, 2018. To date, the FDA has received more than 150 reports of DCM in a variety of dogs that may be linked to grain-free diets. These dogs include Golden and Labrador retrievers, Whippets, a Shih Tzu, a Bulldog and miniature Schnauzers as well as mixed breeds.
These cases involve a variety of dog food brands and formulas. There are lots of theories as to why the dogs become taurine deficient apparently through their diets, but Stern cautions there are no definitive answers.
"We don't know with certainty what is it about these diets that is the issue," explained Stern.
According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans are expected to spend nearly $30 billion this year on pet food.
Larsen advises pet owner to remember how marketing tugs on your heart -- not your brain -- and that there is little medical reason to feed your dog a grain-free diet.
"Diets that have uncommon ingredients or are in that grain free category don't provide a benefit. but they're so popular because of it being such a successful marketing campaign." stated Larsen.
The experts admitted picking a pet food can be tough. Larsen explained the food ingredient list does not provide particular proportions on the individual nutrients needed.
She recommends choosing foods made by companies that have a lot of formulation experience, understand amino acid balance and other potential dietary factors
UC Davis Veterinary Medicine has put out a helpful document to explain the problem to pet owners, and what steps to take if you're concerned or want to change your pet's diet.
And while researchers and scientists are still trying to get to the heart of this problem, the two Golden Retriever owners KPIX spoke to have switched pet foods, and share strong opinions about what happened to their dogs.
"I have no doubt it was the pet food," said Warren.
"I spent $80 a bag with the healthy great food. that ended up nearly killing my dog," remarked Carlevato.
If you are concerned about your pet's diet, consult with your vet first to decide if testing is needed and whether to change diets. Dr. Stern cautions not to supplement with taurine without getting your dog tested first, as those supplements may mask the problem.
Learn more about canine dilated cardiomyopathy here.
for more features.