Pet stores grapple with food concerns amid FDA report on dog heart disease

Pet stores are seeing an influx of anxious customers wondering if they should switch up their dog's food after a U.S. report raised the possibility of a link between certain brands and a serious heart condition.

Proprietors say they understand the concerns, and are trying to assuage those fears with facts and prevent owners from shifting to poorer quality kibble.

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"I'm taking it very seriously because obviously people are worried about their pets," said Ruth Heathcote, owner of Wag on the Danforth in Toronto.

"But having looked at the studies and having read them, I know it's a potential and an if."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an update in late June to its ongoing investigation into a potential connection between dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs and their diets. In the report, the FDA released for the first time 16 brands named most frequently in DCM cases reported to it.

The majority of cases reported using products that were grain free, and contained either peas or lentils, or both. The FDA does not suggest avoiding certain brands or diets, and said any possible link "is a complex scientific issue that may involve multiple factors."

Natacha Santos, manager of The Dog Market pet store in Toronto, said people come in every day to ask staff for advice on the issue.

"I haven't met a customer that isn't confused," she said, explaining that many have seen sensational headlines or media reports that failed to explain the number of cases in the report make up a small percentage of all dogs in America and that it doesn't directly link the disease to any specific brand.

Several pet shops have been keeping their customers informed via social media. Bones Pet Stores in Vancouver noted on its Facebook page that "we have received a number of questions" about the report and linked to the FDA's question-and-answer page on the topic.

The Dog Market held staff meetings to discuss the situation, and all of its staff read the FDA's 77-page report, as well as detailed reports from the manufacturers to ensure they're armed with answers, Santos said.

It and Wag stand by the brands they choose to sell, which include some of the 16 brands the FDA identified. Fromm, for example, is Wag's biggest seller, said Heathcote, who feeds her dog the brand's grain-free option and does not intend to stop.

Heathcote and Santos said they do their best to explain the report to customers with questions, but sometimes dog owners will still want to switch.

Heathcote suggests a grain-inclusive formula, which has less of the ingredients red flagged by the FDA. She had one customer switch from Fromm's grain-free line to its inclusive one.

At The Dog Market, staff guided some customers through similar swaps, and others to a completely different brand, Santos said.

"I want the customers to feel comfortable," she said. "So if they are nervous, we will do whatever we can to make them not feel nervous."

What she doesn't want is for customers to move from a good quality brand to a poorer quality one.

Small Wonders Pets, another Toronto store that is posting updates on its social media channels, told concerned customers who may wish to switch their dog to a grain-inclusive product that it has many options.

"We are here to support any decision you make as a pet owner," it posted on its Facebook page.

The Dog Market plans to continue selling the same brands — whether or not they were mentioned in the FDA report.

"I'm not going to drop the brand... That wouldn't be fair either," said Santos, comparing it to sending someone to jail without going through due process.

Heathcote said sales will dictate which brands she stocks. However, she doesn't plan to shake things up.

"I don't sell anything that I wouldn't feed my own animals."

Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter.

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