As a companion to the guest post I wrote on the basics of cat and dog nutrition over on PawDiet, (I promise I’m not abandoning our ABCs, and K will be my next post!), today we’re going to cover the touchy topic of pet food contamination.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out PawDiet, take a peek at the Food Finder and the widgets page. The ability to find a food based on multiple criteria is essential for picking the right diet for your pet!
What is so scary about packaged pet foods?
Villainous pet food
This is a question bouncing around in people’s head a lot lately, especially considering the food recall in 2007 and all of the buzz around switching to grain-free or raw-based diets.
There are a lot of factors that influence the quality of a packaged pet food extending past the manufacturer. Ingredients shipped from distributors can become contaminated, storage of foods at the store (and at home) can affect food quality, and there are some toxins that the FDA doesn’t completely regulate. The contaminants we are going to cover today include:
- Molds such as aflatoxin and tremorgenic mycotoxins
Jerky treats and bacterial contamination will be covered in a later article. Currently, the causes of jerky-treat-related death are still being investigated. Bacterial infection is an expansive topic and needs an article of its own! However, bacterial contamination is a very common type of animal food contamination.
In many cases, pet food contamination may not be directly related to the manufacturer itself, but instead a breakdown in one of many pieces in a chain of events that ends up affecting your animal.
Melamine – what happened in 2007
A magic eraser made from melamine! (No, magic erasers won't kill your pet in the same way)
Melamine is a chemical used in the production of several non-edible products such as plastics and resin. When added to wheat gluten, melamine can falsely increase the protein content when subjected to laboratory tests. While not approved for use in any food, some companies will illegally add melamine to wheat gluten in order to falsely bump up the reported protein content of a product.
In 2007, a Chinese plant-product processor, an Chinese food product exporter, and an American food product supply company entered a contract that ended up with 800 tons of melamine-contaminated wheat gluten to be imported to the US and sold to pet food companies. When a pet food manufacturer reported several linked illnesses and deaths in the pet community, the supply companies were all brought up on federal charges.
FDA’s response was to develop an initiative called PETNet, which is a web-based network that allows for quick reporting and communication regarding illness outbreaks and pet food contamination between federal and state levels, previously a process that did not have good standards of communication.
While melamine has a wider margin of safety (meaning that a larger amount of melamine has to be ingested all at one time before we start to see toxic effects), the buildup of melamine in small amounts over a long period of time (called a chronic exposure) causes the formation of crystals in the kidneys in both animals and humans.
The crystals lead to urinary problems, kidney stones, and eventually kidney failure. Before everyone who has had an animal in kidney failure runs to report their pet food, this type of pet food contamination is not very common. Due to increased regulation of food products on part of the FDA and increased awareness of melamine in the food industry, the risk of this happening is very low. It is still a good idea to keep up-to-date on current pet product recalls through the FDA.
Aflatoxin and other molds
Aflatoxin is a toxic byproduct produced by certain species of Aspergillus fungi (aka, a mold). While many molds tend to be tremorgenic (meaning they cause tremors and seizures), aflatoxin directly affects the liver.
These species of molds thrive in warm weather and moist grain conditions. They are common enough in grain storage that the FDA has reported “acceptable” levels of aflatoxin in food-based products. As you can see, the “acceptable” levels for certain things (corn here being the key) are HIGHER for food planned for animal consumption than for food planned for human consumption.
It is not a well-kept secret that pet food companies often invest in cheaper ingredients for their pet foods, and food that has NOT passed the qualification for human consumption may be sold to a pet food manufacturer for animal consumption. While the current claim is that these levels of aflatoxin in pet food are not high enough to risk the health of the animal, there is not a lot of documentation on the long-term effects of chronic exposure in pets.
Acute exposure tends to occur when improper storage leads to an acute contamination that slips through the cracks of the food control process (again not a common occurrence)
Signs related to aflatoxicosis start with tummy upset and progress:
- Unwillingness to eat
- Dark, tarry stools from digested blood (melena)
- Stomach pain
- Bloody diarrhea
- The buildup of fluid in the stomach (abdominal effusion)
- Increases in thirst and urination
- Dehydration and other electrolyte imbalances
- Increases in liver enzymes, liver damage, and liver failure
- Coagulopathy (excess bleeding)
- Brain damage or malfunction
As these signs are common among all toxins that cause damage to the liver, it can be very difficult to tie an affected animal to a contaminated food source. If at any point you suspect that your pet may have been exposed to a contaminated food and died as a result, insist upon a necropsy and have samples kept of both your pet’s liver, the contents of your pet’s stomach, and bag up several samples of the food at home for laboratory testing (use gloves!). Then report everything to the FDA.
Alternative to testing through the FDA (which they may or may not offer), you can have your vet send the samples of to a diagnostic testing lab for analysis.
There is no antidote for aflatoxin. Animals are treated supportively to help protect the liver and alleviate signs:
- IV fluids to support hydration
- Vitamin K supplements to prevent coagulopathy
- Drugs to replace loss of antioxidants and prevent vomiting
- Liver protectants
As is often the case, with sudden-onset liver failure, these cases can be difficult to treat, and may end up being fatal.
Tremorgenic mycotoxins cause vastly different signs
While aflatoxin occurs most often due to poor storage at the level of production and distribution, other molds can occur after a product has been purchased. Food at home that has been improperly stored may grow mold, leading to toxic
osis (shout-out to Doctor Schell who authored this tox brief. She is one heck of a fun person and has led an interesting life). This is not limited to purchased pet foods, but is something that can also affect animals who ingest trash, compost, or human food that is past expiration.
Signs of ingestion include:
- Changes in heart rhythm and rate
Depending on how alert you are to the fact that your dog has ingested a moldy substance, treatments can vary:
- Inducing vomiting if possible
- Gastric lavage (which is similar to a human stomach pumping)
- Activated charcoal
- Management of temperature fluctuations
- Drugs to stop tremors and seizures
As opposed to aflatoxin, dogs who ingest mycotoxins do well if they receive treatment in time. Veterinary care is required, so keep the number to animal poison control handy, or notify your local or emergency vet if you suspect an exposure.
Prevent pet food contamination
As always, prevention is key to keeping your pet healthy. There are several changes you can make at home to help reduce the likelihood of your pet being exposed to spoiled or moldy foods:
- Always check the expiration date on foods you feed to your pets.
- Never feed anything that smells “off” or “funny”.
- Store dry food in an air-tight plastic container with a lid.
- Write the food’s expiration date on a piece of masking tape and tape it to the top of the lid. Disposed of any expired food.
- Cap and date opened cans of unused wet food. Store them in the fridge, and toss them after 2-3 days.
- Toss all cans of expired, unopened pet food.
- Don’t keep food in the garage, or outside.
- Invest in a trash can with a lock, or get a lid-lock.
- Throw away spoiled or moldy food in the outside trash can, and do not keep bags with moldy food inside.
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