By Dr. Becker
For U.S. farmers in the Corn Belt, the summer of 2012 will be remembered as one of the hottest and driest on record. In addition to lower crop yields, conditions were ideal for the growth of two types of molds that infiltrate corn plants -- Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.
These molds produce metabolites called aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are potent mycotoxins that cause acute lethal illness and cancer in animals and humans. In fact, aflatoxins are among the most carcinogenic substances on the planet. Aflatoxins poison the liver, and their carcinogenic properties can lead to tumor formation.
How Aflatoxins Infect Corn
When the seed coat of a corn plant is damaged through exposure to extremely dry, hot conditions like those in many Midwestern states this past summer, mold infestation is the result. According to PetfoodIndustry.com, early reports are confirming the presence of high levels of aflatoxin in corn crops.
Since aflatoxin-related pet food recalls have been increasing in recent years even without severe droughts to amplify the problem, this is particularly disturbing news.
Unfortunately, due to the behavior of the A. flavus and A. parasiticus molds, it’s difficult to control or minimize aflatoxin contamination, or to accurately assess the extent of the problem. There can be pockets of plants in the field and in storage that are heavily contaminated, while the rest of the crop is relatively mold-free. So analyzing occasional random samples of corn plants can give misleading results. New sampling protocols should be implemented specifically for crops known to attract mycotoxin-producing molds.
In addition to better testing for aflatoxins in raw materials like corn plants, it’s extremely important that pet food producers also perform their own analyses. Mycotoxins are known to be resistant to heat and processing methods, so manufacturers of pet food should assume any formula containing mycotoxin-contaminated raw materials will also contain these toxins.
According to PetfoodIndustry.com:
“As the frequency of extreme and inconsistent weather conditions increases, we should become aware of how those events influence mold/plant interactions and lead to mycotoxin contamination. Accordingly, mycotoxin-specific safety measures must be put in place to minimize mycotoxin concentrations in finished petfoods.”
Signs of Aflatoxicosis in Animals
Aflatoxicosis is primarily a disease of the liver. Clinical signs of a problem with the liver include gastrointestinal dysfunction, reproductive issues, anemia and jaundice.
Certain types of aflatoxins are associated with the development of cancer in animals. If your pet becomes ill from food contaminated with aflatoxins, you’ll see one or more of these symptoms:
- Severe, persistent vomiting combined with bloody diarrhea
- Loss of appetite
- Fever and sluggishness
- Discolored urine
- Jaundice (yellow whites of the eyes, gums, belly)
If you suspect your pet has ingested aflatoxins, even if he’s showing no symptoms of illness, get him to your vet or an emergency animal clinic as soon as possible. Bring your pet’s food with you if possible.
You should also consult your holistic vet for recommendations on natural liver detox agents like milk thistle, SAMe and chlorophyll.
Keeping Your Dog or Cat Safe from Aflatoxin-Contaminated Pet Food
Outbreaks of aflatoxin-related illness are much more common in dogs than cats because commercially available dog foods more often contain corn products. So if you have a dog, you must be especially careful about the food he eats.
A good start is to transition your pet away from all dry food. Make the move to a high quality canned food. Better yet … consider making some of your pet’s meals at home with recipes like those in my cookbook, Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats. You can also explore commercially prepared raw pet foods as well as dehydrated raw.
If that's not possible, the next best thing is to carefully study the ingredients in the dry food you buy your pet, and stay away from formulas that contain grain and corn in any form, including corn gluten meal, whole grain corn, corn flour, etc.
Not only is corn one of the three crops most highly contaminated with aflatoxins (the other two are peanuts and cottonseed), it’s an extremely allergenic food and difficult to digest.
As you’re checking pet food ingredient lists, keep in mind cereals are another source of frequent aflatoxin contamination, including maize, sorghum, pearl millet, rice and wheat.
Many inexpensive, low quality pet foods rely heavily on the above ingredients.