For years, pet owners have been complaining that their dogs became ill and, in many cases, died after eating jerky treats from China, many of them containing chicken. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been investigating but in a recent update, admitted that it has not found a definitive cause.
However, the agency noted that in the past 10 years, there has been a dramatic increase in pet food imported from China, much of it containing chicken.
It turns out that Chinese consumers prefer dark meat, which leaves a lot of white chicken meat available for export. But Chinese chicken is not approved for human consumption in the U.S. because of concerns about bird flu and unsanitary conditions in Chinese factories, meaning all that white meat -- the very same meat deemed unfit for humans -- is available for use in pet food and treats.
By the FDA's count, the amount of pet food imported from China has grown 85-fold in recent years, with nearly 86 million pounds of pet food being imported in 2011.
"Pet treats, including jerky pet treats are currently considered the fastest growing segment in the pet food market," the FDA noted.
The FDA says it has received about 2,200 reports of pets becoming ill or dying after eating jerky treats; 360 died. Most of those reports involved dogs, although a few cats have also become ill.
ConsumerAffairs receives a constant stream of such reports, like this one from Lucinda of Strasburg, Va.:
"After wondering why our dog was getting so sick, I started hearing about the Waggin Train Jerky Treats. I checked in her box of different treats and discovered that I have an almost empty bag of Waggin Train Jerky Tenders! I am so upset and broken hearted because my dog is dying! ... Our sweet girl is dying because of this poison!"
The majority of the cases in dogs report primarily gastrointestinal signs, including vomiting and diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucus, and can involve severe signs such as pancreatitis or gastrointestinal bleeding.
The next most common signs relate to kidney function, including frequent urination, increased urine, severe thirst, kidney failure and some cases resemble a rare kidney related illness called Fanconi’s syndrome.
There does not appear to be a geographic pattern to the case reports, the FDA said. Cases have been reported from all 50 states and 6 Canadian provinces in the past 18 months.
The FDA has issued warnings to pet owners about the potential threat posed by tainted jerky treats from China but hasn't ordered the products off the shelves because it can't prove they are responsible for the reported illnesses.
Why is it so hard to get to the bottom of the mystery? The FDA says its investigation is "complex, multifaceted and includes a wide variety of experts at the FDA including toxicologists, epidemiologists, veterinary researchers, forensic chemists, microbiologists, field investigators and senior agency officials."
It seems pretty simple, though, to pet owners whose animals are ill. Many try to avoid pet treats from China only to learn too late that they did not read all the fine print.
"To my surprise, these treats were made in China," said Beverly of Palmetto, Fla., whose two rat terriers became ill after eating Waggin Train treats. "The packages say product of the US, but if you search hard enough you'll find 'Made in China' somewhere on the bag.
What to do
So what's a pet owner to do?
In November 2011, the agency issued a warning to pet owners that echoed a similar advisory from 2007:
“FDA is advising consumers who choose to feed their dogs chicken jerky products to watch their dogs closely for any or all of the following signs that may occur within hours to days of feeding the products: decreased appetite; decreased activity; vomiting; diarrhea, sometimes with blood; increased water consumption and/or increased urination. If the dog shows any of these signs, stop feeding the chicken jerky product. Owners should consult their veterinarian if signs are severe or persist for more than 24 hours.”
The agency issued a similar warning just a few days ago.
Amidst all the verbiage, the advice boils down to this: if you want to feed your dog treats, make them baked cookie-type treats rather than meat jerky. But be aware that these can also cause problems in some dogs and be ready to respond if your pet shows signs of illness.
Frustrated with the lack of action, some pet owners have gone to court seeking action. Last July, a class action suit against Nestle Purina charged that the company's Waggin' Train treats had sickened their pets.
Most major pet food companies are included in the complaints on file at the FDA. A few of the more familiar brands identified by the agency include:
- Milo's Kitchen;
- Smokehouse Pet Products Inc.;
- Waggin' Train; and
- Kingdom Pets.
There is, of course, no fool-proof way to avoid contaminated pet food just as there is no absolute protection against contamination in the human food supply. But sticking to baked snacks, along with carefully monitoring your pet's health and responding quickly to illness, is a good start.
Maybe someday, the FDA will find an answer. Or, then again, maybe it will approve chicken from China for human consumption, which will at least put humans and their pets on equal footing.