Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its first alert in July 2018 about a possible link of grain-free pet food to recent cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), we know concerned dog owners have turned to their veterinarians for council and advice, as well as to the companies behind the foods they’ve been feeding, anxious for assurance that their dogs’ diets were safe.

Yet pet food retailers, especially independent pet specialty stores, have also received a “litany of questions and concerns,” wrote Marissa Heflin in an article in the September issue of Pet Product News. “Customers are very concerned that they are offering a diet that will cause harm to their pet,” said Allison Raithel, director of nutritional wellness for retailer Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, as quoted by Heflin. “They are asking for grain-inclusive options and, in some cases, have referred to the news release as a ‘recall.’”

Pet owner misperceptions and confusion

The news release referred to by Raithel was the latest update by FDA on its investigation into the DCM cases, issued in July 2019, and it caused a flurry of worries – not to mention confusion, given the misperception that the announcement constituted a recall – on the part of dog owners. In an earlier article, Heflin reported that after the update was released and included the names of dog food brands apparently tied to these DCM cases, dog owners began commenting and posting questions on the brands’ Facebook pages.

Many people in the industry, whether pet food companies or retailers, believe FDA’s announcements on its DCM investigation have mainly served to sow confusion and fear among pet owners, possibly unnecessarily. For example, Bob Goldstein, DVM, a veterinarian and co-founder of Earth Animal – a retail store and pet food brand – called the FDA statement “premature,” according to Nora Caley, writing in the September issue of Pet Business. “I, as a veterinarian, do not agree with what they are saying,” he was quoted. I don’t think there is any validity to it.

“Our own store is being inundated with calls saying, should I switch from grain-free food to non-grain free,” Goldstein continued. His response has been that he doesn’t think there is any proof that grain-free food is a problem, “but if you’re concerned, just buy taurine.”

Is veterinary advice helping?

Perhaps because he is also a retailer and pet food producer, Goldstein’s views differ from that of many other veterinarians, who, in some cases, seem to be adding to pet owners’ fears. “There is still a lot of misinformation and misconception. Most customers are telling us their vets told them to get off of grain-free food,” said Claudia Loomis, executive vice president and customer care officer for Cherrybrook Premium Pet Supplies in New Jersey, who was also quoted by Heflin.

David Lummis, lead pet market analyst for Packaged Facts, also writing in the September issue of Pet Product News, questioned whether pet food manufacturers and the Pet Food Institute (PFI) should be advising concerned pet owners to consult their veterinarians. “Mainstream veterinarians are not, by and large, fans of grain-free formulas, leaning instead toward tried-and-true (read: grain-based), large-batch formulas backed by AAFCO-approved feeding trials across all life stages,” he said. “With the FDA advisories, some veterinarians have adopted a decidedly ‘anti’ stance.”

Lummis also called out mainstream media for cherry picking limited sets of data included in the FDA updates and approaching articles about them in a simplistic, surface-level or even sensational way.

How retailers and pet food brands are responding

Considering this maelstrom of confusion, conflicting advice and viewpoints and insufficient information – including from FDA itself, because its investigation and others are still in the early stages of trying to unravel a very complex issue – it’s no wonder that dog owners are worried. It’s human nature to fear uncertainty or the unknown, and that’s only compounded if the uncertainty involves a beloved family member like a pet.

Fortunately, retailers and many companies in the industry seem well prepared to respond to the concerns. Despite Lummis’ question, the Q&A page on DCM posted by PFI provides solid, helpful information (if still incomplete given the situation) to pet owners. Pet food brands named in FDA’s July 2019 update were quick to respond to questions and comments on Facebook and other social media, Heflin reported.

In addition, some companies launched new grain-inclusive products at SuperZoo, featuring claims such as “legume free,” or foods and toppers with extra taurine (which can sometimes, but not always, play a role in DCM), in answer to dog owners’ concerns and requests. Though a few told my colleagues who attended the show that they would have preferred to wait for the investigation results as to actual causes, they felt a responsibility to respond to demands for alternatives to grain free.

Perhaps most positive of all, the retailers interviewed by Heflin and even some of their customers seem refreshingly level-headed in dealing with the DCM situation. “Once we are able to have a thoughtful conversation, a pet parent feels much more confident in making a decision to continue to offer a particular food, switch to a new food or offer a variety of add-ons,” said Raithel of Healthy Pet Products.

And from Loomis of Cherrybrook Premium Pet Supplies: “Fortunately, our customers are holistic minded and nutritionally savvy, so they are open minded when they come in and are really seeking a second opinion.”

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dphillips@wattglobal.com