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Pet foods, often sold as a treat, are suspected of causing a potentially fatal disease in dogs, experts warn.
One of the country’s top veterinary nutritionists says he doesn’t feed his own dogs the imported dried dry food, nor would he advise other owners.
“We don’t weigh costs and benefits,” says Associate Professor Dr. Nick Cave of the School of Veterinary Sciences at Massey University. “We are taking a risk for no reason to even give this food, and there are so many other options that I would choose.
“I think we can be very careful.”
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A veterinary clinical pathologist who has studied cases in New Zealand agrees and wants owners, especially small dogs, to be aware of the risks.
“Even though it can save a dog or prevent a dog from hospital treatment,” says Dr. Julie Tomlinson.
The problem first appeared about 10 years ago when animals in the US and Australia got sick after eating imported, dried, jerky dog treats.
Products imported from Asia and sold in New Zealand include dried beef, chicken, duck and turkey meat.
David Unwin / Stuff
Dr. Nick Cave, a pet nutrition specialist at Massey Veterinary School, says he doesn’t feed the treats to his own dogs.
According to Cave, despite extensive research and testing, no one has been able to determine why the treats appear to cause the disease known as acquired Fanconi syndrome, a disorder that affects the kidneys.
Symptoms can include lethargy, loss of appetite, increased thirst, and more frequent urination.
In most cases, once seen by a veterinarian and taken off the diet, the dog’s health will improve. However, the disorder can lead to serious illness and, in some cases, death.
Tomlinson identified roughly 10 cases in Auckland and Northland for a study she conducted in 2018.
A 2013 Australian study looked at 108 cases over a two-year period, and in 2017, scientists in Japan looked at the cases of two small dogs who got sick after eating jerky treats.
Peter Lamberton / Delivered
Small dog owners in particular should be careful about what treats and how much of them they are feeding their pets.
In New Zealand, the Department of Primary Industries (MPI) released details of a case in 2019 involving a miniature poodle who regularly ate jerky chicken treats.
While MPI has a system for recording food toxicity concerns, Cave says it is “opaque to the public and not well known”. In Australia, where a system has been put in place in response to the problem, veterinarians and scientists continue to warn owners of the problem.
NZ Pet Food Manufacturers Association Secretary Richard Brake says he is unaware of the recent New Zealand cases but supports better data collection, regulation and control.
The current rules are too broad and “pretty useless when it comes to issues like pet food”.
Chris McKeen / Stuff
Customs use five main rewards for training search dogs. Technical customs specialist Tyler Owen prepares Leo for a detection exercise.
The association encourages members to meet the requirements of human food standards, for example in the labeling of ingredients.
“It’s a question of transparency for consumers,” says Brake. “We take the care of pet parents very seriously. I think pet food manufacturers understand more than most the emotional bonds between pets and pet parents. “
Tomlinson says while the scale of the problem in New Zealand is not “massive” owners should think about it when buying food for their dogs.
“I think it’s important to know where your animals’ food comes from.”
Cave said cases of acquired Fanconi syndrome were “very rare” until about 10 years ago, although they were found in pets that had eaten things that can be toxic to dogs like black currants, grapes, and raisins.
But then cases emerged where dogs, mostly small breeds, ate an “inappropriate amount” of dried, jerky treats over a long period of time. Many of the goodies were made in China.
David Unwin / Stuff
Dr. Nick Cave of Massey Veterinary School says there are other ways you can give your dog a treat.
Cave says nothing in the ingredients or processes used in China or elsewhere has been singled out as the cause.
However, an anti-food irradiation activist, Friends of the Earth’s Bob Tait, suggests this could be a cause.
Treats imported from Asia are often treated with gamma rays to remove unwanted bacteria and improve shelf life.
Tait believes that changes in the molecular structure due to the irradiation process could make the food dangerous. Mainly because the dosage is unlimited when treating pet food.
Robert Cianflone / Getty Images
Some dogs in Australia, the United States, and Japan have been reported to develop symptoms after eating imported dried, jerky treats.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which conducted a study into diseases related to jerky treats in pets, investigated whether radiation combined with other factors can produce toxic metabolites.
However, nothing conclusive was found, although 6,200 cases were investigated, including 1,140 deaths in dogs.
An FDA spokesman told Stuff that the number of diseases had recently decreased and hoped to complete the investigation soon.
The FDA is of the opinion that the treats are not a necessary part of a dog’s diet. However, if the owners choose to feed them to their pet, they should be watched closely.
Part of the problem, Tait says, is that people in New Zealand are unaware of the problem.
“People should know that there is a risk, they should know what to look for when giving treats to their dogs,” he says. “Try to get something that is made locally.”
He would like a moratorium on the sale of the products until a proper examination has taken place, as well as clear labeling, even if a product has been irradiated.
Chris McKeen / Stuff
The New Zealand SPCA wants more transparency about pet food, including better labeling requirements.
Some imported products sold in New Zealand claim to have been irradiated. others say they are not suitable for cats – this is due to cases in Australia where cats died after eating irradiated products.
In Australia, the RSPCA calls for a ban on all irradiated pet food.
New Zealand’s SPCA doesn’t go so far as to support a ban – but it wants more transparency about ingredients, country of origin, manufacturing processes and import requirements.
“This would make it easier to identify and investigate potential health problems and make evidence-based changes to effectively protect the well-being of our pets,” says SPCA research fellow Dr. Alison Vaughan.
Under current regulations, a manufacturer only needs to list details such as directions for use, expiration dates, and any precautions that should be taken.
Chris McKeen / Stuff
Dog trainer Pettina Mitchener (L) and CTS Tyler Owen (R) from Customs Technical Specialist (CTS) with Leo in a warehouse for detection training at Auckland International Airport. Customs use a variety of reward systems to train their dogs – not just food.
A spokesman for the MPI confirmed that there are no labeling requirements that indicate whether a product has been irradiated.
“If MPI determines that there is a risk associated with irradiated pet food that requires regulatory intervention, we can review the existing requirements.”
MPI says products made in New Zealand are not known to be irradiated.
One of the companies that sells dried goodies imported from Asia is Masterpet through its Vitapet and Yours Droolly brands. Its products are widely used in New Zealand supermarkets.
Information on the back of the package indicates where the treats are made and that they are not suitable for cats. Some also say they have been irradiated.
The labels also indicate that the treats should make up no more than 10 percent of a dog’s diet.
Cave said information like this was responsible.
There are no known cases of animals becoming unwell after consuming Masterpet products in New Zealand. In Australia, a pet food consumer website lists Masterpet products among irradiated and imported products from China and highlights the concerns raised.
Stuff contacted Masterpet in New Zealand about the problem. A spokesman from Australia responded, initially saying there would be an answer, but in the end there was no comment from the company.
A spokesman for the NZ Veterinary Association says the jerky treat problem falls under the “old news” category. He was not aware of the most recent cases.
But for Cave, the subject is something he continues to think about, especially with his own animals.
He says he doesn’t want to take the risk with the treats or other irradiated pet food.
He also believes they are unnecessary. If he wants to use a treat to reward a dog for his obedience, he is using something from their normal diet – rather than buying something special.
“I’m a nutritionist and I think about what goes into my animals when I feed them. If I give them a reward, I want them to have nutritional benefits.
“But I don’t want you to associate food with love either. The best reward you can give your dogs is time, not food. Go and throw them a ball. “