Posted: Oct. 22, 2013, 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated: Oct. 23, 2013, 11:30 a.m. EDT
By Ken Niedziela
Complaints about jerky-related illnesses in pets have fallen sharply over the past year as proof of a connection between the treats and the ailments continues to elude investigators, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported Tuesday.
The FDA released a "Dear Veterinarian” letter designed to streamline the reporting and study of adverse events. The agency also reminded consumers that jerky treats should be given only in moderation and urged pet owners to take note of a questionable product’s lot number, a fact that investigators use to identify manufacturing plants and choose samples for additional testing.
"This is one of the most elusive and mysterious outbreaks we’ve encountered,” said Bernadette Dunham, DVM, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Our beloved four-legged companions deserve our best effort, and we are giving it.”
The updates came 10 months after several jerky products were withdrawn from the U.S. market when the New York State Department of Agriculture discovered low levels of antibiotic residue. The falloff in complaints coincided with the product recalls, but the FDA isn’t ready to leap to conclusions.
Signs of possible jerky-related illnesses in pets include decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, increased water consumption and increased urination.
"Because the brands that were recalled represent a significant portion of the jerky treat market in the United States, FDA theorizes therefore that the drop-off in complaints … is more likely the result of the general lack of availability [of] jerky pet treat products,” the agency stated.
Complaints about jerky, primarily treats made in China, began building in 2007. More than 3,000 reports of illnesses involving 3,600 dogs and 10 cats were lodged as of late September.
More than 580 deaths
have been reported with pets of all sizes, ages and breeds, but evidence pointing to jerky as the cause has been inconclusive.
About 60 percent of the canine illnesses involved gastrointestinal distress, 30 percent presented with kidney or urinary problems, and 10 percent exhibited convulsions, tremors, hives or skin irritation.
The diagnosis in 135 dogs with kidney or urinary problems was Fanconi syndrome, which is marked by the body’s inability to retain nutrients such as glucose and amino acids because of the failure of the kidney’s proximal tubule.
"These dogs often improve when they are no longer being fed the treats,” the FDA noted.
Suspicion over the years has fallen on Chinese treat manufacturers and the ingredients they use. The Chinese government last year criticized calls
for a temporarily halt to jerky production and even cast doubt on the FDA, saying "there might be something wrong” with the agency’s investigation.
FDA scrutiny of jerky treats has involved more than laboratories and researchers inside the U.S. government.
"As part of our investigation, we have inspected production facilities in China and met with [a Chinese regulatory agency] to ensure that they are aware of U.S. requirements for pet food safety and to develop collaboration on sharing information to support FDA’s investigation,” the FDA reported. "FDA also plans to host Chinese scientists at our veterinary research facility to further our scientific cooperation.”
Most of the pet illnesses reportedly involved chicken jerky, but advisories were extended last year to duck and sweet potato jerky treats. Jerky-wrapped rawhide and jerky paired with dried fruit or yams have been flagged as well.
The testing of more than 1,000 jerky samples over the past two years has looked for the presence of everything from pesticides and mycotoxins to irradiation markers and toxic metals.
"Testing has also included measuring the nutritional composition of jerky pet treats to verify that they contain the ingredients listed on the label and do not contain [other] ingredients,” the FDA stated.
The agency stopped short of advising consumers to eliminate jerky from their pets’ diet.
"Jerky pet treats should not be substituted for a balanced diet and are intended to be fed only occasionally and in small quantities,” the FDA noted
The agency asked veterinarians
who suspect a jerky-related illness to document it on the FDA Safety Reporting Portal and possibly provide samples to the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN).
The agency recommended that veterinarians who submit a case conduct a routine urinalysis after freezing a subsample of 10 milliliters. In addition, veterinarians who suspect liver or kidney injury should obtain routine blood work for possible FDA investigation.
"Vet-LIRN will provide testing results to the veterinarian to ensure that owners are counseled on the interpretation of the test results and appropriate medical care follow-up,” the FDA advised.
Industry Professional Site: Comments from non-industry professionals will be removed.