New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2007


CAT CHAT

TAINTED PET FOOD: LOVE THAT KILLS
by Nancy Marano
 

Mary Anne Miller noticed Cleo’s habits had changed. The 13-year-old, socialized feral cat, stopped going outside and slept in a heated cat bed on the porch. Cleo urinated massive amounts of fluid and quickly becoming dehydrated and lethargic.

Meanwhile upstairs in Miller’s bedroom, Guinevere, her 17-year-old cat, presented the same symptoms. Since Guin and Cleo never met, it ruled out the possibility of the cats passing a virus between them.

Her veterinarian diagnosed both cats with renal medullary solute washout. This is the long way of saying the cats were in the beginning stages of acute kidney failure.

The only factor common to both cats, other than age, was that they ate wet food exclusively. The veterinarian started both cats on supportive fluids, then Miller hand fed them, continued to push fluids and allowed them to rest. While they are getting better, they’ve never returned to normal. They no longer enjoy being petted and draw away when she tries to rub their tummies.

“When I saw Iams mentioned in the pet food recall, I raced to the pantry and pulled cans off the shelves. My heart sank. I was feeding the recalled food. I returned it to the store and never even thought to keep a can for testing,” Miller said. “Now I read every label before I buy pet food. I avoid anything with gravy, wheat gluten or rice protein. Buying pet food these days almost causes me a panic attack.”

Cleo and Guinevere were lucky. They were diagnosed and treated quickly. But for many pet owners the pet food recall, which began March 16, with Menu Foods recalling 91 brands of pet food, has been a devastating experience.

People took cats with symptoms similar to Miller’s cats to the veterinarian. Since neither pet owners, nor veterinarians, knew food was the cause of the cats’ illness, owners continued to feed the highest quality food they could afford only to have their cats die. Now pet owners live with the grief of losing a beloved pet and endure an added layer of guilt because they were instrumental in killing their cats.

How could something like this happen? Why weren’t consumers told there was a problem? Why weren’t veterinarians able to find out the magnitude of the problem? What can be done to keep something like this from happening again?

Animal lovers are asking these questions of pet food companies, legislators, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but they aren’t getting satisfactory answers.

SYSTEM BREAKDOWN

Due to customer complaints, Menu Foods began testing their pet food in February, 2007. Soon a cat in their test lab died of kidney failure. Menu Foods changed wheat gluten suppliers and issued the first product recall. Pet owners were surprised to learn that wheat gluten in pet food came from China where inspection standards are lower and the product was not re-examined when it came into this country.

Consumers were amazed at the number of brands – some well-known and expensive - made at one plant. But at that point there weren’t many reported deaths so the press and public, while sorry for the people and pets affected, didn’t think this was a major issue.

But the problem didn’t go away. Every day more recalls were announced and the pet owning public became more frightened about the food they bought.

Unlike the Center for Disease Control for humans, no central clearinghouse existed for animal health where veterinarians could share crucial information. If a veterinarian saw 20 cases of possible food poisoning, he had no way to know if a veterinarian in another state saw the same problem. Without such a clearinghouse, the FDA and other agencies couldn’t understand the full scope of a potential problem.

SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

Pet owners lived on an emotional rollercoaster as conflicting announcements poured from their television sets.

At first scientists thought the source of the problem might be contaminated wheat gluten, a protein source used as a thickening agent in gravy. Then aminopterin, a rat poison used in China but not the United States, was found in the tainted pet food. Next melamine, a chemical high in nitrogen, was found in the urine of affected animals. Melamine is added to wheat gluten and rice protein to make grain products appear higher in protein than they are. Scientists at the University of Guelph found cyanuric acid, a metabolic by-product of melamine, in the contaminated foods. They learned melamine and cyanuric acid react together to form crystals that may block kidney function. These substances were found in the kidneys and urine of affected animals. While none of these products should be in pet food, it is unclear whether any of them actually would kill an animal. Now melamine, as a possible cause for the deaths, is being questioned. Some scientists wonder whether genetically modified wheat was used and if so, whether it is the actual cause of the problem. With all this confusion, the real cause of the illness and death may never be known.

This leaves pet owners even more frustrated and brings into question the entire pet food industry and how they regulate what goes into the food our pets eat. Pet food is regulated by the FDA and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). But neither agency was on top of this situation. The FDA has been playing catch-up from day one and didn’t even admit to how many animals were affected until an April 27, 2007 internal alert that stated, “As of April 26, 2007, FDA had received over 17,000 consumer complaints relating to this outbreak, and those complaints included reports of approximately 1,950 deaths of cats and 2,200 deaths of dogs.”

WHAT TO DO

What can pet owners do now? Some people have turned to making their pets’ food from scratch. But this is not always practical. Veterinarians are hesitant to recommend products because some of the brands they relied on were on the recall list. The best thing to do is to read the label carefully. Be sure the protein comes from meat, chicken or fish, not by-products or grains.

There are some actions that might help prevent a future crisis.

  • Regular inspections of pet food manufacturing plants are needed. Due to lack of personnel and a low priority, the FDA doesn’t do this now.
  • Companies must report animal health problems to the FDA immediately.
  • Centralize the agencies dealing with the pet food industry. At the present time many different agencies, state and federal, set standards and regulations and these agencies don’t communicate with each other.
  • Make pet food labels clear and easy to read. Every ingredient in the food needs to be listed on the label.
  • Establish a national clearinghouse for veterinarians to track pet illnesses.

Everyone hopes there will never be another pet food crisis on this scale. All these pet deaths may be the catalyst for getting better controls implemented to help humans and animals in the future. These actions need to be implemented now so there will never be another pet food crisis on this scale. Let’s hope that these pet deaths are not in vain, and may be the catalyst for getting better controls implemented to help humans and animals in the future. For further information or to report a pet food problem check:

FDA - www.fda.gov or call 888-INFO-FDA
Recalled food: www.itchmo.com
Homemadediets: www.littlebigcat.com/index.php?action=library&act=show&item=014

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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