By Dr. Becker
In mid-September, the FDA released information on its website stating that in the past 18 months, 360 dogs and one cat in the U.S. and Canada have died after eating pet treats imported from China. Reports of illness since 2007 now number over 2,200.
In China, dark chicken meat is preferred over white meat. So white meat ends up in pet treats manufactured for export, including jerky treats, which according to the FDA are considered the fastest growing segment of the pet food market. How disturbing is that?
The majority of reports have involved chicken jerky (treats, tenders, and strips), but there are also reports of illness from duck and sweet potato treats, as well as treats made with chicken or duck jerky that is wrapped around dried fruits, sweet potatoes, or yams.
For the first time, the FDA seems to actually suggest that pet owners avoid the treats altogether with this statement:
"The FDA is reminding pet owners that jerky pet treats are not necessary for pets to have a fully balanced diet, so eliminating them will not harm pets."1
The agency is also expanding its testing of the treats to check for the presence of irradiation byproducts as a possible source of contamination.
Could Irradiation Be the Problem?
The U.S. allows pet food and treats to be irradiated for purposes of disinfection and to kill pathogens. However, the level of radiation at which pet consumables can be treated is a great deal higher than what is allowed for human foods.
How irradiation might create illness is not well understood, and proponents of the process maintain it is not only safe, but necessary for food safety. However, three years ago Australia banned irradiation of cat food after 90 cats became ill and 30 had to be euthanized due to paralysis and other problems apparently linked to the irradiated food.2
NBCNews.com was able to confirm that at least one brand of chicken jerky treats associated with reports of illness, Waggin' Train treats made by Nestle Purina Petcare, are irradiated.
Stick with Safe Pet Treats
Last month I offered some tips on how to select safe, nutritious treats for your pet. If you're interested in finding healthy snacks for your dog or cat, I recommend you read that article. I've also included those tips below.
And don't forget we offer our own very high quality, all natural dog treats (some cats enjoy them as well) here at Mercola Healthy Pets. They're called Beef & Bison Bites. They are made from 100 percent grass-fed, human-grade beef and bison liver preserved with all natural vitamin E.
The ingredients in Beef & Bison Bites are sourced and produced entirely in the U.S. from animals bred and raised here.
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.