By Dr. Becker
I've written many articles here at Mercola Healthy Pets about the jerky pet treats imported from China that have sickened over 4,500 pets and killed 600 dogs over the last seven years. Each time I write an update on this appalling and seemingly never-ending situation, I try to provide suggestions to readers on how to avoid potentially tainted chicken, duck and sweet potato death treats.
A little over a year ago, and six years into the FDA's unimpressive search for answers about the tainted treats, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) found trace amounts of residual illegal poultry antibiotics in several lots of the very same brands of treats implicated in reports of pet illness and death. This revelation prompted Nestle Purina PetCare (makers of Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch jerky treats) and the Del Monte Corp. (makers of Milo's Kitchen products) to voluntarily pull their jerky products from store shelves across the country.
Pet owners breathed a sigh of relief at the news, however, predictably, both the pet treat manufacturers and the FDA claimed the antibiotic residue was not what had sickened or killed thousands of pets. Knowing the primary motivation of huge pet food producers (Waggin' Train put $54 million in Nestle Purina's coffers last year, and Milo's Kitchen treats accounted for $60 million in sales for Del Monte), and given the FDA's unwillingness to act on behalf of pets and their families, I correctly assumed we hadn't seen the end of the jerky treat disaster.
Potentially Tainted Treats Are Back on Store Shelves
Here's why I've made such an effort to steer as many pet owners as possible away from these treats for good.
According to a late January report by NBC News:
"Two of the top-selling brands of jerky treats for pets will soon return to U.S. store shelves, a year after a nationwide recall and with government experts no closer to solving the mystery that has linked the products to hundreds of animal deaths and thousands of illnesses."
Yes, they're back. Nestle put their still-made-in-China Waggin' Train treats back on store shelves in February, and Del Monte will return their treats to the market this month.
For the record, Del Monte says its Milo's Kitchen Chicken Jerky Strips and Chicken Grillers Recipe treats are made from "U.S.-sourced meat," and Nestle has announced that in addition to their China-supplied treats, they will also introduce "new products sourced entirely in the U.S." (Important note: "Made in the USA" may or may not mean all ingredients in the product were made in the USA. As long as the product was assembled here, regardless of where the ingredients come from, manufacturers can stamp "Made in the USA" on the package.)
Needless to say, knowledgeable pet owners, animal advocates and veterinarians aren't happy about this, since there's really no information about what changes, if any, the pet treat producers have made to their products. A veterinarian in Florida who has treated several cases of Fanconi syndrome, a serious kidney disorder linked to the treats, says she would like to see clinical trials in pets that prove the "revamped" products are safe.
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Declines to Take a Stand to Protect Pets
Just a few days after NBC News reported the return of pet jerky treats to store shelves, they announced more disheartening news. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recently rejected a resolution to discourage pet owners from feeding jerky products.
According to AVMA spokesman David Kirkpatrick, "The resolution as presented is basically dead. We don't have the scientific proof to say, 'Don't do it.'"
Dr. Kendal Harr, a veterinarian and clinical pathologist in Seattle who helped sponsor the petition for the AVMA resolution, believes the tests to identify the toxin in jerky treats don't even exist at this point in time. He says the search for the problem is like a "needle in a haystack" of potential compounds. It's moving too slowly in his estimation, and he doesn't believe there's been any real progress despite several years of FDA involvement.
It would seem the AVMA, like the FDA, sees a clear link between the treats and sick and dead pets, but chooses not to take an official stand to protect companion animals and their owners. It's worth noting that according to NBC News, federal tax records show Nestle Purina is a minor donor to the AVMA.
Recommendations for Avoiding Toxic Pet Treats
There's no shortage of commercial pet treats on the market today. They come in every conceivable shape, size, smell, flavor, color and texture. The challenge is finding safe, high-quality, species-appropriate treats in a sea of products claiming to be "all-natural" and "made in the U.S.A."
The following recommendations will help point you in the direction of selecting safe, wholesome treats for your furry family member.
Tip #1: Don't Overfeed Treats to Your Pet
Dog or cat treats – even very healthy ones – should not constitute more than 15 percent of your pet's daily food intake, and preferably less than 10 percent. And it's best to limit them to training and behavior rewards, as a bedtime ritual, or as a "time to get in your crate" enticement - things of that nature. Treats should be offered primarily as rewards during house training, obedience training or other similar activities, and not because the rest of the family is sitting down with a bowl of popcorn to watch a movie.
Also keep in mind that cat and dog treats are not a complete form of nutrition for your pet, and should never be substituted for balanced, species-appropriate meals. Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese pet. Overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in a dog or cat with nutritional deficiencies.
Tip #2: Treats Should Be Sourced in the U.S. and Made in the U.S.
Legally, pet food manufacturers can make the "made in the U.S.A." claim as long as the product was assembled in this country – even if the ingredients are imported. So when you're shopping for safe treats, it's not enough that a product claims to be made in the U.S. You want to be sure all the ingredients originated here as well.
The U.S. certainly produces its own share of tainted products, but as a general rule, the contaminating agent is quickly identified and these days, immediate action is taken to remove the product from store shelves.
The chicken jerky dog treats and other treats suspected of causing illness and death in so many pets have ingredients imported from China. Despite the efforts of the FDA and independent laboratories to isolate the contaminant, nothing has been identified, and five years after the first reports of sick and dying pets, the treats are still being produced by major pet food companies and sold by major retailers. So I would certainly strongly recommend avoiding any product containing ingredients sourced from China.
That said, I have found several excellent quality treats from New Zealand and Canada. The important point is to know and trust your treat company's commitment to purity and quality control.
Tip #3: Treats Should Be High-Quality
A high-quality pet treat will not contain grains or unnecessary fillers, rendered animal by products, added sugar (sometimes hidden in ingredients like molasses and honey), chemicals, artificial preservatives, or ingredients known to be highly allergenic to pets. These criteria rule out the vast majority of commercial pet treats on the market.
As is the case with commercially available pet foods, high-quality pet treats aren't likely to be found in big-box stores, large pet store chains, your local supermarket, or your vet's office. Your best bet shopping locally is to visit small, independent pet stores with knowledgeable staff who can answer customer questions and are competent to recommend products that make sense for individual pets.
Most excellent quality, human-grade pet food producers – typically smaller companies – also make a few types of treats. So if you're already feeding your dog or cat a high-quality commercial pet food you trust, see if the manufacturer also makes treats.
Another option is to shop online, especially if you've done your research and know exactly what you're looking for.
Tip #4: Offer Fresh Human Foods as Treats
I recommend avoiding all grain-based treats. Your dog or cat has no biological requirements for the carbs in these treats, and in addition, they are pro-inflammatory.
Consider instead living "human" foods. Berries are a great treat because they're small and loaded with antioxidants. You can also offer small amounts – no more than 1/8 inch square for a cat or small dog and a 1/4 inch square for bigger dogs – of other fruits (melons and apples are good fruits to start with) as well as cheese.
Many cats enjoy bits of zucchini or cantaloupe. You can also try offering some dark, green leafy veggies as treats for your kitty. It might even keep her away from your houseplants!
Excellent training treats for dogs include frozen peas and raw almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts (but NEVER macadamia nuts).
Tip #5: Prepare Homemade Treats for your Pet
If your dog happens to be wild for dehydrated chicken strips (chicken jerky), you can make your own quite easily. Just buy some boneless chicken breasts, clean them, and slice into long, thin strips – the thinner the better. Place the strips on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet and bake them for at least three hours at 180 degrees. The low temp dries the chicken out slowly and the strips wind up nice and chewy.
Let the strips cool, and then store them in plastic bags or another airtight container. You can also freeze them.
If you buy commercial canned food for your dog or cat, you can 'repurpose' a can for use as a supply of healthy treats. Open a can of your pet's favorite brand, preferably something with a strong aroma, and spoon out little treat sized amounts onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
Put the baking sheet into the freezer until the bite sized bits of food are frozen. Then move them to an airtight container and back into the freezer they go until you're ready to treat your pet to a treat! (Most dogs will enjoy the treats frozen, but you'll need to thaw them to a chewy consistency for kitties.)
For recipes to make pet treats at home using beef, liver and turkey, check out my article titled "Nutritious, Delicious Pet Treats You Can Make in a Flash".