WASHINGTON – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying to solve a stubborn mystery surrounding the deaths of almost 600 dogs that ate pet treats from China, and officials are hoping pet owners and veterinarians can help them figure out what exactly may be causing the illnesses.
Investigators haven’t yet found a certain cause. The FDA says it has received reports of illnesses in 3,600 dogs and 10 cats in the United States since 2007, and 580 of those dogs died. The pet treats were sold under a wide variety of brand names.
The complaints were filed by pet owners, some of them unsure of the cause of their pet’s illness. But many others were sent in by veterinarians who have seen repeated cases of kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and a rare kidney disorder, the FDA said.
FDA veterinarian Martine Hartogensis says the agency is now appealing to pet owners and veterinarians to send them more information on animals who may have gotten sick after eating the treats. Pets can suffer from a decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting and diarrhea among other symptoms within hours of eating treats sold as jerky tenders or strips made of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes or dried fruit.
“This has been one of the most mysterious and elusive issues we’ve had to investigate,” Hartogensis said.
She said the investigation has been particularly complicated because researchers haven’t been able to pin down what ingredient may be causing the problem and because many of the treats and their ingredients are imported. And not much is known about animal deaths. While autopsies on humans can often determine the cause of death, pet owners usually forgo expensive autopsies on their deceased animals.
Dr. Richard Goldstein of the Animal Medical Center in New York said he has been investigating the illnesses since they appeared to begin in 2007, and he is still treating dogs that seem to suffer from the mysterious condition. He was consulted on a case just last week, he said.
In his experience, many of the cases have been small dogs who are eating a large amount of treats. He said the illnesses are rare, so he usually knows immediately when a sickness is connected to the jerky.
He said most dogs he treated were fine if they stop eating the treats. That’s why it’s important for dog owners to know about the problem, he said.
“The word is not out,” he said. “Some vets don’t even know about this.”
The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has run more than 1,200 tests, visited pet treat manufacturing plants in China and worked with researchers, state labs and foreign governments but hasn’t determined the exact cause of the illness.
The FDA has issued previous warnings, and a number of jerky treat products for pets were removed from the market in January after a New York state lab reported finding evidence of up to six drugs in certain jerky products made in China, the FDA said. But others remain on store shelves, and the agency doesn’t want to conduct a recall without a definitive cause.