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A Vet Wants to Know: Why Are You Still Giving Your Dog Jerky Treats?

Some jerky treats kill some dogs, and how is still a mystery to veterinary science. So why do you take the risk?

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Sep 20th 2016


Every so often, I take a Machiavellian stroll through my nearest big chain pet store. It is important to stay abreast of the happenings in the world of pet stores. Which foods are being promoted? Is there a trend in toys? What are the latest marketing schemes?

I took such a stroll last week. The big pet store nearest to my house has bulk bins of dog treats. Like most pet stores, dogs are welcome to come into this one with their owners. A woman was at the treat bins, perhaps taking advantage of the system. She was feeding jerky treats to her dog straight from the bin. I cringed.

Dr. Eric Barchas. (Photo by Liz Acosta)

Dr. Eric Barchas. (Photo by Liz Acosta)

If you need proof that some pet stores put profits ahead of their customers, look no further than the jerky treat bin. Why, oh why, are bulk jerky treats still sold? And how is it possible that anyone still feeds jerky treats to dogs? Hasn’t everyone heard the bad news about the treats by now?

Evidently not, so let me say it. Jerky treats can kill dogs.

The poisonous element in some jerky treats is one of the great mysteries of veterinary medicine. The United Stated Food and Drug Administration has been exploring the mystery since 2013, but jerky treats have been sickening and killing dogs since at least 2007. Several cats also have died.

At first, there were vague allusions to “imported” jerky products as culprits. However, more recently authorities have been more blunt. The problem jerky products are manufactured in China.

However, as the great melamine scandal of 2007 showed, globalization has led to supply networks that can be convoluted. Products labeled as made in the USA may in fact contain ingredients sourced elsewhere.

Long story short: You’d have to be insane to give any jerky treat to your dog.

As I mentioned, the toxic element in jerky treats is a mystery. It does not appear to be present in all Chinese jerky, or perhaps not every dog is sensitive to the toxin. It probably is a contaminant, but that is not known with certainty.

The toxin affects dogs’ kidneys. It causes damage to a structure called the proximal tubule. This, in turn, causes glucose (sugar) to spill into the urine. Sugar in the urine, in turn, causes increases in thirst and urination. If caught early and treated appropriately, the damage may not be permanent. However, fatal kidney damage is possible. It is estimated that at least 6,200 dogs have been sickened by the treats. At least 1,100 have died.

Other symptoms of jerky toxicity may include lethargy, vomiting, poor appetite, and diarrhea. The diarrhea may contain mucus and blood.

Jerky treats for dogs by Shutterstock.

Jerky treats for dogs by Shutterstock.

Chicken and duck jerky treats seem most likely to cause toxicity, but other types of jerky, including vegetarian versions, also have been linked to illness.

The FDA has been searching for an answer to the mystery for several years. A contaminant is suspected, and the FDA has found plenty of contaminants in jerky treats. According to a July article in JAVMA News, some of the contaminants include “the antimicrobials sulfaclozine, tilmicosin, trimethoprim, and enrofloxacin . . . as well as sulfaquinoxaline . . . [and] the antivirals amantadine, rimantadine, and memantine.”

None of these compounds is the likely culprit, but their presence in jerky treats points to carelessness in production that should raise alarm bells in any dog lover. It also, frankly, makes me wonder how any person in China lives past 50 — quality control does not seem to be a forte of Chinese food production (And, in fact, many Chinese infants died at around the same time as the pet food melamine scandal — it turned out that infant formula also was contaminated with melamine.)

You should be aware that some experts don’t believe that China, or even contaminants, are to blame for jerky-related illness and death in dogs. There are some who believe to this day that there is something about jerky itself that is the culprit. This would place jerky in league with grapes, which are another food that causes canine kidney damage unpredictably and in an entirely mysterious fashion.

Fortunately, there is a very simple way to keep your dog safe. Don’t feed jerky treats. Period. Not now, not ever (or at least not until the mystery is solved definitively). It’s just too risky.