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I’ve always been a dog lover, but it wasn’t until I met my partner Melanie and her Chihuahua Emma during college that a dog became a permanent part of my life. Emma is the boss. She is known to be immensely loyal to her people and often to be skeptical of newcomers, especially men. It took Emma and I five minutes to become best friends, so much so that Emma is credited with a quarter of my PhD.
When we returned to Toronto to work at SCIEX, a company that helps scientists with complex data, Melanie and I knew we needed another pair of paws around the house. With the help of Texas Chihuahua Rescue we adopted Angela. Quiet, submissive and a little shy, Angela is the perfect complement and partner for our excited, passionate and self-confident Emma.
Like any dog lover, Melanie and I were worried and concerned when we heard about the deaths in dogs and other pets that occurred late last year from food poisoned with mycotoxins. This hit is particularly homely because my work at SCIEX involves developing new technologies and methods to screen foods for pollutants like mycotoxins.
What are mycotoxins?
Mycotoxins are naturally occurring toxic chemicals produced by certain molds and fungi. They can grow on a variety of crops and foods, including grains, nuts, spices, dried fruits, apples, and coffee beans, especially when conditions are warm and humid. Contamination can occur in multiple locations during food production as mold can grow on live crops, harvested fruits and grains, and stored processed foods. Most mycotoxins are chemically stable enough to survive food processing. They remain toxic even after being broken down into by-product metabolites found in the milk of animals fed contaminated feed.
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Consumption of food contaminated with mycotoxins can become seriously ill and even fatal to humans and animals if certain mycotoxins such as aflatoxins are ingested in high doses. Aflatoxins are relatively common mycotoxins that can damage the liver.
Mycotoxins can also have long-term health effects, such as causing cancer and immunodeficiency. Several hundred mycotoxins are known, but many remain unidentified, sometimes because these mycotoxins are difficult to detect. These “masked mycotoxins” and other “emerging mycotoxins” are a growing concern in the food safety industry.
How is food examined for it?
Final food products and raw materials are routinely screened for mycotoxin contamination using advanced analytical chemistry methods that include liquid chromatography (LC) in combination with mass spectrometry (MS). The LC technique is used to separate the various component compounds in the food based on the other physical properties of each of the components. These compounds are then detected, identified and quantified based on their chemical properties, ie their mass-to-charge ratio, using MS technologies. Spurred on by the emergence of masked and other newly discovered mycotoxins and the growing need among scientists to better detect these toxins, SCIEX has developed detection methods using LC-MS, the newest 530 of which can simultaneously detect mycotoxins quickly and accurately.
How do you protect yourself and your dog from mycotoxin threats?
While a dog’s super-olfactory sense is able to detect mold, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re staying away from them. As any puppeteer can attest, dogs eat, sniff or lick (almost) anything that is reminiscent of food – moldy or not. Stay vigilant to minimize the risk of illness.
- Prevent them from rummaging in compost heaps, piles of moldy leaves, wild mushrooms, or trash cans of rotting food.
- You can also minimize the risks at home by making sure food is properly dried and stored.
- Avoid storing food in warm and humid conditions that are perfect for mold growth.
- Check foods like whole grains, dried fruits, and nuts regularly and dispose of anything that looks moldy, discolored, or shriveled.
- Buy grains and nuts as fresh as possible and store them in a dry and cool place, away from insects.
- Avoid damaging grains before drying and storing, and minimize the amount of time food is stored before consumption.
- See the FDA’s health advisories for dog food recalls and advice.
It should be noted that fungi, which produce mycotoxins, can penetrate deep into food and do not just grow on the surface.
Look out for symptoms that suggest you may be sick, including confusion, vomiting, and loss of appetite. You may also have neurological symptoms such as tremors, seizures, or ataxia (which appear like you are drunk or have difficulty walking). If your best friend has any neurological symptoms or any combination of these symptoms, take them to your veterinarian for a checkup.
By doing this, we can do our best to keep our best friends and ourselves safe and secure while getting the most out of our de facto “colleagues” while working from home.