Pet Mystery Deaths: Vets Group Won't Say No to Jerky Treats

Image: Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies look out of their box

Questions remain about the safety of pet jerky treats often fed to dogs like these Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies. Markus Schreiber / AP

Amid ongoing reports of animal illnesses and deaths tied to pet jerky treats, the nation’s leading veterinary association says it won’t warn owners not to feed the popular chicken, duck and sweet potato products to their dogs.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, or AVMA, rejected a resolution this month that would have discouraged use of the jerky products until further evidence about safety is available.

“The resolution as presented is basically dead,” said David Kirkpatrick, an AVMA spokesman. “We don’t have the scientific proof to say, ‘Don’t do it.’”

Instead, the AVMA’s house of delegates recommended that the group tell its 85,000 members to report jerky-related pet problems to the federal Food and Drug Administration and to work with the FDA to safeguard animals through “quality control of pet food and treats.”

That comes as a blow to some AVMA veterinarians and scientists who already have been warning owners to avoid the jerky treats linked to nearly 600 animal deaths and some 4,500 illnesses since 2007.

“Do I think animals are getting sick because they’re eating jerky treats? Yes,” said Kendal Harr, a Seattle vet and a clinical pathologist who helped push a petition for the resolution at the AVMA’s house of delegates meeting Jan. 10-11.

And it adds to confusion for pet owners trying to decide whether to feed their animals the strips, nuggets and other treats that many pets love, but that have been linked to gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney failure and a dangerous disease called Fanconi syndrome.

The FDA has cautioned pet owners for years about a “potential association” between the treats and the illnesses, but the agency has stopped short of a warning to avoid them.

The AVMA, like the FDA, says that while it’s clear animals who’ve eaten treats have become ill or died, there’s no conclusive proof of the cause. The FDA has been testing jerky products for more than five years, to no avail.

The AVMA resolution came just weeks before two of the nation’s top pet jerky treat makers announced they would return revamped products to store shelves starting next month. Nestle Purina Pet Care plans to introduce new versions of its Waggin’ Train products in February, while Del Monte Foods Corp. said it would offer new versions of its Milo’s Kitchen treats in March.

The companies issued nationwide recalls last year after New York state agriculture officials detected trace levels of unapproved antibiotics in jerky treat samples. The FDA and company officials said that the antibiotics weren’t tied to the ongoing reports of illnesses.

Jerky makers have consistently said there is no proven link between their products and pet poisonings. Nestle Purina officials said they have made "significant enhancements" to the Waggin' Train production process, including limiting meat sourcing to single suppliers and requiring that each batch of treats be tested for a range of contaminants.

The treats are part of the $21 billion U.S. pet food industry, including $54 million in sales last year for Waggin’ Train and nearly $60 million for Milo’s Kitchen treats, according to data compiled by Packaged Facts, a market research group.

Nestle Purina is a minor AVMA donor, federal tax records show, contributing $17,250 of the group’s $30 million budget in 2012.

Veterinarians like Harr say that it’s likely that tests don’t exist to identify the toxin behind the animal illnesses. It took years, for instance, for scientists to recognize that grapes and raisins can cause liver toxicity in dogs and that Easter lilies can cause kidney failure in cats.

The search for the problem is like a “needle in a haystack” of potential compounds and it’s moving too slowly, she added. “I don’t think there’s progress, personally.”

In the meantime, the AVMA and the FDA both remind owners that jerky treats are not a necessary part of a pet’s diet and to seek medical care at the first sign of gastric distress or kidney trouble.