Pet Food Recalls

Is your pet’s food toxic?

This column is not about natural versus processed. It does not address the vagaries of pet food labels. I decline to weigh in on the viral debate about how much protein dogs should eat. Whatever magic mix of proteins, carbohydrates and fats is in your pets’ food bowls, will it actually poison them?

As you may already know, there has been another rash of pet food recalls. This time, the culprit seems less sinister than when pet food contaminants caused fatal kidney disease in 2007. The foods recalled in recent months contained salmonella, a bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness in many species.

North American health authorities have linked the contaminated foods to illness in 15 people at last count, most in the United States. They all got sick either from contact with the affected pet foods or with animals that ate them. Dogs and cats can get sick from salmonella poisoning, just like humans, but it’s hard to know how many have been affected by the suspect foods. Veterinarians rarely test for specific bacteria, relying on symptomatic treatment instead.

Most pets with clinical disease from salmonellosis will have diarrhea which is sometimes bloody. Some also vomit, lose their appetites and have no energy. The condition can be serious, but is rarely fatal except in frail, elderly, really young or immunocompromised patients. Animals with salmonellosis will shed the bacteria in their stool intermittently, even if they have no symptoms of disease, making them a possible source of infection for the people around them. For more on the salmonellosis, see Dr. Scott Weese’s Worm’s and Germ’s blog.

So what’s the solution to the ongoing pet-food safety dilemma? Home-cooking is time consuming, requires careful nutritional management and can be expensive. Increased government regulation of the industry is unlikely and, even if new controls were put in place they would not guarantee safety. Bacterial contamination of human foods still occurs, despite fairly rigorous safety standards. I was shocked at the number of human food recalls listed on the U.S. Food and Drug Association’s website while researching this article. You will find the most up to date pet food recalls listed on that site.

All of this means we have to be extra vigilant on behalf of our pets. You might want to subscribe to one of the many websites that will send alerts about new recalls. These sites are great for spreading recall news, but they may also broadcast a lot of misinformation, so I’m reluctant to recommend any one in particular. Be sure to check any nutritional or health advice with your veterinarian.

It can help to buy food from a veterinary clinic or a shop dedicated to pets, as opposed to a grocery, department or farm supply store. Vets and pet food stores can keep track of who buys what, so they can get in touch with customers if problems arise. Ask your retailer if they will alert you to recalls.

At home, you should store pet foods in original packaging inside airtight bins. Use careful hygiene when handling the foods and be particularly alert anytime a new package of food is opened. Did anyone in the house get sick at the same time – human or otherwise?

There is an enormous amount of just plain bad information about pet nutrition doing the rounds these days and when foods from so many companies have been found wanting, it’s hard to know who to trust. Ask your vet for advice, buy from dependable sources and keep your ear to the ground.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Trenton, May 2012