Hollings researchers studying whether popular dog foods are causing cancer

October 08, 2021
Drs. Turner and Findlay with their dogs
Drs. David Turner and Victoria Findlay secured a $228K grant to find if advanced glycation end products in pet food cause cancer. Photos by Josh Birch

Most pet food advertisements claim superiority in making pets healthier and happier, but two MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researchers are finding that this might not be the case. David Turner, Ph.D., and Victoria Findlay, Ph.D., recently secured a $228,000 grant from the Bobzilla Foundation, a nonprofit animal wellness group, to study whether advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in pet food are speeding up the development of diseases like cancer in dogs.

“Most of the studies that have looked at how diet can affect cancer are focused on fats and sugars,” Turner said. “AGEs are proteins and fats that go through a chemical alteration called glycation when they are exposed to sugars. They’re almost like a common marker in certain foods.”

AGEs are harmful oxidative compounds that over time accumulate in tissues, causing stress and inflammation, and in turn increase the risk of developing diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Previous research has found foods like bacon, tofu and barbecue have some of the highest levels of AGEs for humans. Findlay and Turner are now hoping to expand this research and study AGEs found in some of the most popular brands of dry dog food, often referred to as kibble.

Dr. Victoria Findlay holding dog food 
By understanding AGEs better in dogs, Turner said they’ll be able to draw connections to health in humans through comparative biology.

“We estimate that dog food is about 100 times higher in AGEs than human food,” Turner said. “We have seen the impacts that AGEs have on humans, yet we are giving our pets 100 times more. In a little over a decade, Golden Retrievers have lost about five years off their life expectancy. We believe that processed pet food consumption has contributed to this concerning statistic”

Thanks to the Bobzilla Foundation grant, Turner and Findlay began testing hundreds of brands of kibble in July and plan to publish a list detailing the amount of AGEs found in each. Findlay said they then hope to use this information in the study of dogs, as they visit their veterinarians, to determine how their diets affect their overall health. “We can do blood draws to study the impact of that food on the dog, if they get sick,” Findlay said. “That will allow us to draw correlations between AGE consumption and health.”

Turner said he was put in touch with the Bobzilla Foundation by several veterinarians in California who had watched his TEDx talk. Findlay and Turner hope to use their findings in the kibble study to examine the impacts AGEs have on cancer development and tumor growth. Turner said they plan to feed kibble found to be high in AGEs to mice to determine how AGEs and tumors can interact to make treatment less effective and produce a worse outcome.

By understanding AGEs better in dogs, Turner said they’ll be able to draw connections to health in humans through comparative biology. “We can look at AGEs over the entire life span of the dog by working with the veterinarians and the dog owners,” he said. “We are essentially talking about doing a clinical trial that spans the lives of our pets and allows us to track things like cancer. I think that’s exciting for comparative studies, not only to help the pets we love, but also ourselves.”

Turner is a renowned AGE researcher, having looked at connections between AGEs and cancer in humans since 2010. In March of 2020, Turner led a study into the connection of AGEs and breast cancer risk. The study, published in Cancer Prevention Research, found that women who consumed foods high in AGEs had an increased risk of in situ and hormone receptor-positive breast cancers.

“You can track what dogs eat much better than you can with humans because generally a dog’s diet is less complex. Understanding what is actually occurring from a biological aspect also gives us insight into what we can do with human patients to improve their health and lengthen their lives.”
— Dr. Victoria Findlay

“AGEs promote cancer,” Turner said. “They can make cancer grow quicker. They are not just there because cancer is there. They contribute to the growth of that cancer because they cause inflammation around the tumor, which then allows the tumor to grow a lot quicker without being impeded.”

While people cannot prevent the accumulation of AGEs over a lifetime, they can take steps to decrease and slow the process by consuming foods low in AGEs. What affects the level of AGEs in food depends on several factors, including how processed they are and how they are prepared.

“I tell people to be aware of the AGE content in their foods because some foods that you think are healthy really aren’t,” Findlay said. “A cereal bar in the morning may be low in calories, but it is high in AGEs because it is very processed. Likewise, grilling a chicken breast may be healthier than deep frying it, as exposure to extreme heat is also a source of increased AGEs in food.”

Findlay said the end goal is to raise awareness about the harmful nature of a high-AGE diet in both humans and dogs and prevent premature death from diseases like cancer.

“You can track what dogs eat much better than you can with humans because generally a dog’s diet is less complex,” she said. “Understanding what is actually occurring from a biological aspect also gives us insight into what we can do with human patients to improve their health and lengthen their lives.” 

About the Author

Josh Birch
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

Keywords: Cancer