SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 2, 2012

The dangers of jerky treats

Vet Connection Dr. Elizabeth Bradt
The Salem News

---- — Using treats as a means of reward or distraction for our pets is not unusual. “Roxie,” a Yorkie, was owned by a wonderful lady who had long suffered from severe hip arthritis and therefore could not get to the store very often. She relied on friends to buy her groceries and even food and treats for her beloved canine companion.

Happily, her veterinarian agreed to make house calls for her special situation. During a call for an exam and vaccinations, she returned from her kitchen with a bag of treats for rewards. Unfortunately, she held in her hand a newly opened bag of dog treats of a brand that has been associated with numerous complaints to the FDA. Thankfully, the veterinarian stopped her from giving the treats and explained this serious situation.

Jerky treats have been an extremely popular treat for pets because of their high-protein, low-fat composition, and dogs love them. Also, the fact that the ingredient list is generally very short (chicken and some flavorings) allows people to feel good about giving their dogs something “natural.”

But somewhere along the way, something has gone terribly wrong. Since 2007, the Food and Drug Administration has issued numerous warning about pet illnesses and even deaths associated with these jerky treats. The most recent figures show more than 2,200 reports on file, and these include more than 360 deaths thought to be linked to these treats. In many cases, kidney failure was the primary reason for the sickness, death or euthanasia of the pet. What is even more disturbing to most people is that almost without exception, the country of origin of the product is China. The memory of the nationwide pet food recall caused by tainted ingredients from China is still fresh. Thousands of pets became very sick and even died in 2007 from this serious problem.

Our hospital had a case where a client with two hound dogs noticed that one of the dogs was very lethargic. They brought her in, and her lab work showed only a slightly elevated protein level in the urine — a sign of possible damage to the kidneys. The owner did not figure out the cause until a friend of hers noted that the jerky treats she was feeding were made in China and warned her. Inexplicably, the other dog was not lethargic at all and had been eating the same treats.

Unfortunately, despite rigorous and continued testing and FDA inspections of manufacturers in China, the source of the problem is still unidentified. Without knowing what the exact problem is, the FDA is powerless to compel any sort of recall. Manufacturers of the treats are all reluctant to pull their products from shelves, and this has led to a strong backlash from consumers and has social media buzzing. Even now, several lawsuits are in progress.

According to Laura Alvey from the FDA, there are productive discussions happening with pet food firms at this time in the hopes of finding a cause for this ongoing issue. The latest testing of the treats is focused on problems stemming from irradiation of the ingredients.

So, what can you do to make sure your pet is not adversely affected?

First, and very simply, avoid buying any sort of jerky treat that is made in China. Although that sounds easy, it is often difficult to determine exactly where a product is made. Even products that are “Made in the USA” may source ingredients from China. If you are not sure, call the manufacturer and ask them if the treats are wholly made in the U.S. from U.S.-sourced ingredients. If you don’t get a definitive answer, don’t buy the product.

Next, consider alternatives for the jerky treats. Many dogs will happily accept baby carrots or green beans as a snack or reward. Try to stick to a trusted one or two treats from brands that you trust. There are some great dental treats such as rawhide chews on the market that serve double duty by removing calculus from your dog’s teeth. Other pet owners have found homemade recipes like the ones at DogTreatKitchen.com for making their own special home-cooked goodies.

Remember, treats should only make up a small portion of the calories your pet receives each day. While this sounds like common sense, in many of the complaints on file with the FDA, owners were feeding too many jerky snacks far too often.

Finally, it’s important to see a veterinarian if your pet shows any odd symptoms or has persistent vomiting and diarrhea. In a review of the complaints to the FDA, a fair percentage of pet owners never saw a veterinarian or had any blood and urine analysis done. Without that information, it is almost impossible to say that the treats are the definitive cause of the illness or death. Your pets rely on you to make sure their food and treats are safe, and they need your help.

If you believe these products have affected your pets, please tell your veterinarian and file a report with the FDA online.

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Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem (www.creaturehealth.com). She is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Email your pet questions to docliz@creaturehealth.com. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”