Jerky pet treats have sickened more than 100 dogs in Ohio and killed about 22 of them in the last seven years, but the cause of the outbreak still remains a mystery, according to federal data obtained by the Dayton Daily News.
More pets in Ohio have died in connection to the illness than all but five other states, the data showed. Ohio also outranks most states for complaints of illness. The state’s large population likely contributes to its high number of cases and deaths.
Federal health officials have visited Chinese manufacturing facilities where jerky products are made, conducted tests on ill animals and treats and worked with industry experts, academics, scientists and government officials in the hopes of identifying the source of the problems.
But so far, the investigation has not yielded definitive results.
“We just have this association between illness and jerky treats, but we don’t know what’s in the jerky that is the causative agent, and without knowing that, you can’t test products specifically for it,” said Dr. Valerie Parker, an assistant professor of small animal internal medicine and nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University.
Hold off on jerky treats
Some veterinarians urge pet owners to avoid feeding their furry companions jerky treats until the mystery is solved.
Reports of illness have declined, but mainly because many jerky products were pulled from the market, health officials said. Some major companies plan to reintroduce jerky treats in the near future.
But some veterinary experts said consumers should talk with their vets to decide if is good and safe to use jerky treats.
In January 2012, Holly McCutcheon’s Labradoodle, Jack, became ill after eating chicken jerky treats.
Jack developed an upset stomach and rash on his ears, and he was heaving, lethargic and drinking an excessive amount of water, said McCutcheon, 63, of Springfield.
McCutcheon took Jack to the vet, but it was not clear what was wrong. Then McCutcheon read about a puzzling illness associated with jerky treats that caused symptoms similar to Jack’s.
McCutcheon and her vet decided that Jack should not receive any more jerky treats. He began recovering shortly after McCutcheon stopped providing the treats.
“Since I quit giving it to him, he’s never had those symptoms ever again,” she said. “I am extremely convinced that the issue was these treats.”
Hold off on jerky treats
Since 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it has received reports of more than 3,600 dogs and 10 cats becoming ill nationwide after consuming jerky pet treats. More than 580 pets nationwide died between 2007 and last September.
About 113 of those reports originated in Ohio, and 22 animals in the state died after becoming sick, according to FDA data obtained by the newspaper through a federal public records request. The data was current through October 22.
The states with the most reports of illness and deaths tended to have large populations, but the rankings did not exactly align with population estimates. Vermont had more reports than other much larger states, including Illinois and Georgia. Ohio had more deaths than New York, which has far more residents.
Experts also said many cases of jerky-related illness likely were not diagnosed or reported because the affected dogs did not show clinical signs of pain or medical issues. The symptoms can be minor.
“As a general rule of epidemiology, we estimate that there are many more cases than are reported,” said Siobhan DeLancey, an FDA spokeswoman.
The FDA said it has tested treats for Salmonella, metals and elements, pesticides, antibiotics, mold, nephrotoxins and other poisonous chemicals. But tests for these problems have come back negative.
Some jerky products were voluntarily removed from the market last year after lab tests found evidence of six unapproved antibiotics in treats manufactured from China.
Health officials, however, said the drugs were not likely responsible for the illnesses.
Since the products were removed, reports of illnesses related to jerky treats have declined sharply, DeLancey said.
“However, FDA does still continue to receive reports, and we believe that the decline in reports is because the majority of jerky treat products are not currently available as a result of the removal from the market of those products found to contain unapproved antibiotics,” she said.
New treat products
Nestle Purina Pet Care will introduce three new types of chicken jerky in February, and Del Monte Foods Corp. will resume selling some jerky treats in March, according to the companies and media reports.
The companies said they have taken significant steps to ensure the highest quality standards for their products.
The FDA has issued warnings to veterinarians and pet owners about the potential risks of jerky treats, while also noting that treats are not dietary essentials. But it has yet to outright ban any products.
Members of the Veterinary Medical Association’s house of delegates rejected a resolution to discourage feeding jerky treats until more information about their safety is available, said Lynne White-Schim, the association’s assistant director in the division of scientific activities.
Delegates debated the topic and decided the association should leave any decision about using jerky treats in the hands of individual veterinarians and their clients, White-Schim said. But the association will continue to help assist the agency in tracking and hopefully identifying the cause of the illness.
“Similar to the FDA, we’re recommending that the decision to use jerky pet treats should really fall to the professional judgment of the veterinarian who can provide the best on-site guidance to pet owners who have questions about the safety of jerky treats,” she said.
But Parker, with OSU, said veterinarians in Ohio continue to see suspected cases of jerky-related illness, and she encourages residents to forgo jerky treats until the problem is identified or eliminated.
“I think it is still an issue,” she said. “Since we don’t know definitively what the causative problem is and we don’t definitively know which brands are always going to be affected, I personally just recommend avoiding all jerky at this time.”
McCutcheon said she refuses to give her dogs any jerky treats, but thankfully there are plenty of other treat options available. She advises pet owners to avoid jerky products, even if they are made stateside.
“There are some made in the United States, but I am still leery of that because they may process it here but there is no guarantee they are sourcing the chicken in the United States,” she said.
People whose pets becomes sick should stop using the treats immediately, consider visiting a veterinarian and save remaining treats and packaging in case they need to be tested, the FDA said.
Symptoms of the illness typically show up within hours of pets consuming treats that are sold as jerky tenders or strips of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes and dried fruit, health officials said.
Symptoms include decreased activity, vomiting, decreased appetite, diarrhea, increased water consumption and increased urination.
The FDA in October proposed new rules to create regulations that address the manufacturing, processing, packing and holding of animal food. The rules would also require facilities to have a food safety plan, perform an analysis of potential hazards and implement controls to minimize those risks, the agency said.
“Through its proposed rules, the FDA has taken an important first step toward ensuring that all pet food is manufactured in a clean and proper environment and that companies have a strategy in place to deal with any food-borne outbreaks,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who in 2012 criticized the FDA for its response to his inquiry into tainted pet treats.
By Cornelius Frolik - Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT)
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