My dog got sick after I changed her food.
It was my first year of veterinary school, and I started her on a diet to try and finally lose the extra weight she'd been carrying for too long. My dog loved food. The first red flag was when she had less appetite. "Well, it's a diet food," I thought. "She probably doesn't like it as much, or it's helping her stay full."
The second red flag was a loss of energy. My dog was older, 12 at the time. "Well, she's getting up there," I thought. "She isn't going to act like a puppy forever."
The third red flag was smaller, less frequent stools. Again, this was a new diet for weight loss. "It's higher in fiber," I thought. "That should cause bigger stools, more often, but maybe she's just adjusting."
Finally, my dog collapsed. It was a brief episode, she was back to herself afterwards, but I was out of reasons. That night, we drove to my old workplace back home and I had her seen.
My dog got sick after I changed her food, and all of her signs were intestinal. Loss of appetite. Changes in stool. Abdominal discomfort. I was certain it was the food.
At the vet, the first signal that this was serious was the look on the vet's face as he performed his physical exam and got to her belly. The second signal was the tone in his voice when he recommended radiographs. I was only a few months into veterinary school at the time, but the images spoke for themselves loud and clear.
My dog got sick after I changed her food, but it wasn't related to the food at all. My dog had a large mass on her spleen, one that had been brewing for awhile, and one that had finally reached a critical size, pushing a segment of her intestines against her body wall, compressing them, and preventing food from flowing through properly.
My dog had surgery, and she did wonderful. The mass came back benign. She stayed on her new diet, lost the weight, and was slim and fit 6 months later. 2 months after that, she passed away from progressive neurological signs. We believe she had a brain tumor.
I tell this story because when bad things happen to our dogs, we want desperately to know why. We want something to blame, and oftentimes, food is an easy target. In most cases, diet isn't the problem. I've read countless stories in Facebook groups about dogs that fell ill and the owner expressed that food was the only thing they could think of-- they JUST opened a new bag, today, yesterday, or last week. Then the diagnostics come back, or the food analysis comes back, or the necropsy report comes back... and it wasn't food at all: parvovirus, distemper, toxicity from moldy trash, bacterial infection from a dead animal in the backyard, exposure to lawn fertilizer, lymphoma, the list could go on.
Sometimes it is the food. Dogs that develop DCM secondary to diet can die suddenly before they're diagnosed. Dogs that eat food with high levels of vitamin D or aflatoxin can become acutely ill. Problems with food can and do happen.
Here are some things that pet owners can do to make sure that if it is a food-related issue, they can identify it and pursue regulatory action:
- Always know the brand name, lot number, and expiration date of the food your dog is eating.
- Ideally, food is stored in the bag it was purchased in, but if not, always document these things before discarding the bag.
- If your dog becomes suddenly ill and you or your vet suspect diet may have played a role, save multiple samples of the diet your dog was eating and contact the company to report a potential issue.
- If requested, send a sample of food to the company, but save other samples for third party testing as well.
- Talk to your vet about laboratories in your area that can test food for adulteration.
- If your dog passes away for unknown cause, try to pursue necropsy if it is at all within your means.
- This is a hard decision to make, and it may mean you don't get remains back. You may be able to compromise by having your veterinary team shave a lock of hair for you to keep or make a clay or ink pawprint at the clinic.
- If testing of the food, diagnostics run by your vet, or a necropsy report are consistent with illness caused by food, file a report with the FDA.
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