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Ask a Vet: The Problem with Dogs and Jerky Treats

Few people know that jerky can sicken and kill dogs, and very little is being done about it.

 |  Nov 5th 2013  |   78 Contributions


Every once in a while I stop by my local big chain pet store to help keep my finger on the pulse of what's new in the dog and cat product world. My neighborhood store has a large area devoted to bulk treats for dogs. No information on the origins of the treats is offered. I often see people feeding their dogs treats straight from the bulk bins. The store allows and even encourages this. I, on the other hand, am appalled by the sight. Those people could be unknowingly killing their dogs. I often intervene, but I cringe when I think about how common the practice is.

It's not as bad as the 2007 melamine scandal yet, but it's bad: jerky treats are sickening and killing dogs.

I don't understand why this subject isn't all over the media and on the forefront of every dog lover's mind, but for some reason the jerky menace in dogs is little-known and receives scant attention. Hopefully that will be changing soon. I don't understand why jerky treats haven't been recalled en masse. Unfortunately that is not likely to happen soon. Of course, I do understand why pet stores don't have big warning signs above the jerky treats: they're good revenue generators.

The problem with jerky treats was first formally identified in 2007. Approximately 3,000 dogs and 10 cats are known to have become sick, and almost 600 dogs are known to have died. I can't even imagine how many more have gone undiagnosed.

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Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Dogs sickened by jerky treats most often suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, often accompanied by evidence of liver damage. A smaller number of dogs suffer from a form of kidney damage that leads to an unusual and formerly rare (except for in Basenjis) problem called Fanconi Syndrome. In the syndrome a portion of the kidneys called the proximal tubule is damaged. This leads to aberrations in glucose, potassium, and pH. The first symptom is generally increased urination accompanied by increased thirst. Weight loss can occur, leading to emaciation and poor body condition.

Death can occur from uncontrollable gastrointestinal signs, pancreatitis, blood pH problems, or kidney failure. However, most dogs sickened by jerky treats recover if they receive treatment.

Here is the really scary part: nobody knows why jerky treats make dogs sick. The problem was initially considered to be an issue with "Chinese chicken jerky." However, it is now known that duck, sweet potato, and dried fruit jerkies also can cause illness.

Most of the dogs known to have been sickened by jerky treats consumed products made in China. Therefore, many people recommend not feeding Chinese-made treats. However, remember that China bashing is highly de rigueur in today's society. It is possible that most of the dogs have been sickened by Chinese treats simply because most treats are made in China. Also remember that many foods that are "made in the USA" contain ingredients that originated in China. Long story short: no jerky, regardless of where it comes from, should be considered safe.

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Jerky for dogs by Shutterstock.

Most people assume that there is some contaminant in the treats that is sickening dogs. However, efforts to identify the contaminant have not been successful. According to a recently released FDA fact sheet, jerky treats that have sickened dogs have been tested for "Salmonella, metals, pesticides, and antibiotics, and were screened for other chemicals and poisonous compounds." Despite these efforts, the cause of the problems remains unidentified.

This places jerky in a uniquely nefarious group of food and plant items that can sicken or kill pets for reasons unexplained by current science. Other members of the group include grapes, raisins, and lilies (in cats).

The analogy between grapes and jerky may actually be a very good one. There are some people who are beginning to suspect that there is no contaminant. Rather, they suspect that jerky itself, like grapes, may be safe for people yet toxic to some dogs (but not others).

According to this theory, jerky (and not just the Chinese-made variety) has been poisonous all along and the problem simply wasn't identified until 2007. This is similar to our experience with grapes, which were recommended as healthy treats for dogs until the early 2000s.

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Dog eating by Shutterstock.

The theory is backed up by anecdotal evidence from vets going back 30 years or longer. I have heard stories of dogs dying after eating jerky intended for humans many decades ago.

Despite the theories, jerky illness in dogs remains a complete mystery. However, the FDA appears to be redoubling its efforts to get to the bottom of the matter. It recently sent out a Dear Veterinarian letter requesting that vets help raise awareness of the problem. The letter also offers guidance on collecting diagnostic samples to help determine the source of the problem. Of course, the FDA could simply ban chicken jerky treats, but it has so far refused to do that, supposedly because the adulterant, contaminant, or cause of the problems is unknown. Or maybe someone is paying them off.

Fortunately, as long as strangers, friends, and neighbors don't give treats to your dog, the problem is easy to avoid. Don't feed jerky, imported or domestic, marketed for dogs or for humans, commercial or homemade, to your dog. Period.

Most dogs love baby carrots every bit as much as jerky. I recommend them as the best and healthiest treat for dogs. Baby carrots are healthful, delicious, inexpensive, non-messy, low-calorie, and safe. (For now -- goodness help us all if it is someday determined that carrots, like grapes, can kill dogs.)

Read more by Dr. Eric Barchas:

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