By: Bernadette Dunham, D.V.M., Ph.D.
As a practicing veterinarian I saw first-hand that pets tend to eat odd things, from foreign objects such as stones, fish hooks or sewing needles with thread…to car antifreeze, sometimes with unfortunate outcomes. However, when it comes to the main staple of our pet’s nutritional diet we usually turn to commercially produced pet food that we reach for on the store shelves.
Millions of pets consume pet food without any problems, but once in a while, as is the case with human food, bacteria or chemicals may contaminate pet food or pet treats and our pets may get ill. If you think your pet may have become ill from eating pet food or pet treats then I have some important steps for you to follow:
First, call your veterinarian! It is important that your pet receive prompt medical attention. Your veterinarian will most likely ask if your pet vomited, had diarrhea, or was acting lethargic and how soon any of these signs appeared after eating.
Second, while your veterinarian will tend to your pet’s condition, you or your veterinarian can help FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) investigate your pet’s illness. You or your veterinarian can electronically report cases of animal illness associated with pet foods through the Safety Reporting Portal, or by calling the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators in your state.
But before you log-on or pick up the phone, here’s what we need to know:
- What kind of pet do you have? Is it a dog, cat, rabbit, fish, bird, or other species?
- What is the age, weight, and breed of your pet? Is she pregnant or spayed? Is he neutered?
- How much of the suspected pet food does your pet normally eat at each feeding — and how much has already been eaten from that package?
- How long has your pet been eating the suspected pet food? Did the signs of illness appear following feeding a new or partially used container of the food?
- How much of the product do you still have?
- Also, did any other pets in your household eat the same product? Did they become ill too, or were they unaffected?
- What other foods or treats does your pet eat?
- Did your ill pet spend time outside unsupervised (back to they eat odd things) and why do you suspect the pet food caused the illness?
- Does your pet have any current or previous health problems, and do you give your pet any other food, treats, dietary supplements, or drugs?
The condition of your pet is paramount to determining what happened and why, but also necessary is the information provided on the pet food package. If you transfer dry pet food into other containers for easier handling, please save the original packaging until the pet food has been consumed. FDA will want to know the exact name and the description of the product as it is stated on the label. The type of container such as box, bag, can, or pouch can be useful information as well.
FDA’s investigators will be looking for the lot number, which identifies in which plant your pet’s food was manufactured, and when. Is there a best by, best before, or an expiration date on the package? This, along with the UPC code, or bar code, and the net weight are facts useful to FDA’s investigators. It may also help for you to let us know when and where you purchased the pet food, and how the food was stored, prepared, and handled.
Pet owners should also call the pet food manufacturer to report a suspected pet food illness in their pet. The contact information will be printed on the package.
Like any scientific investigation, there are numerous questions to consider and your ability to provide the information to your veterinarian and to FDA’s CVM is most essential in helping to determine what happened. It is very much like putting on Sherlock Holmes’ thinking cap to solve a mystery.
FDA brings a multitude of resources to pet food investigations. As we evaluate the circumstances that led to your pet’s illness, a variety of FDA experts join forces to solve the puzzle. Investigators with expertise in proper manufacturing practices, plus food and feed safety, examine the manufacturing plants, warehouses and the trucks used for shipping the pet food. They are supported by scientists and other experts at FDA headquarters who can help them determine what might have caused a pet food or pet treat problem.
When a pet food is suspected of causing illness in animals, samples of the food might be sent to FDA laboratories and perhaps FDA’s Forensic Chemistry Center where scientists perform original research to identify any possible contaminants or other hazardous materials in the product.
In addition, CVM has established a veterinary response laboratory network (Vet-LRN), which assists in the investigation by examining samples from pets that have become ill. Vet-LRN works with your veterinarian and the collaborating network laboratories whenever clinical or tissue samples are needed to help diagnose the problem with the pet food.
FDA is committed to the health and well-being of your pet and by working together, you, your veterinarian, and FDA can not only respond to, but more importantly prevent any pet food-borne illness from happening again. Thank you!
Dr. Bernadette Dunham is the Director of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine