Are Jerky Treats Healthy for Our Dogs?

I have several clients who feed their dogs chicken jerky treats. After all, chicken jerky treats sound healthy and what pet parent doesn’t enjoy giving Fido a tasty snack? With four dogs of my own, I vary in the type of treats I give them. When I decided to give these products a try, the previous concerns regarding chicken jerky treats were foremost in my mind. So, I was careful in my selection. First I chose duck strips, followed by a high dollar chicken strip treat. The price for the duck strips, about $29 a bag; the chicken strips, about $23. These are not cheap treats. The label made it appear that these products were made in the USA. There was even a little USA flag on the bag. Keep in mind, I stated APPEARED.

Since I write a pet blog I subscribe to regular updates about pet food recalls or other pet related issues.When I received the November 18, 2011 caution from the  FDA about chicken jerky products, I took immediate notice. I went into the pantry grabbed the different bags I had purchased (including one made from cage-free ducks), and read more carefully. Right there, at the bottom of the bag, in bold letters were the words: Made in China. I was shocked!

None of us like to throw money away. I’m no exception. I usually buy several bags of treats at a time. Do I just toss them away? If I don’t have a receipt I can’t really take them back. This means I’m out $60. Not a cheap lesson that I need to be more vigilant when buying pet snacks. I certainly don’t want to expose my dogs to harmful toxins that could cause their kidneys to fail, or even cause their death.

Getting back to the FDA’s concern about these jerky treats; during a 16 month period of time (spanning from 2008 to 2009) the FDA fielded 153 complaints from consumers whose dogs became gravely ill after consuming chicken jerky treats. As a result, in mid-December of 2008 the FDA posted a caution to dog owners about the treats. This coincided with a voluntary recall of Supa Naturals Chicken Breast Strips distributed by KraMar, an Australian company.

In fact, the first reported incidents of a Faconi-like syndrome in dogs who had consumed chicken treats occurred in Australia. Towards the close of 2008, Sydney veterinarians were suddenly faced with an unusually high number of small and medium-sized dogs who needed treatment for this illness. Simply stated Faconi hinders the kidneys from absorbing nutrients and electrolytes from the blood stream. The result is a spillover of glucose in the urine. The effects on the dog’s organs are damaging and will cause death if left untreated. However, Faconi is a genetic disease that appears only in certain dog breeds, particularly Basenjis.

Like super-sleuths the Australian veterinarians questioned the pet parents about their dog’s diet. (This was most likely prompted by the melamine contaminated pet food incident of 2007.) What they discovered was a commonality: All the dogs had received the KraMar chicken jerky treats. In their report to the Australian Veterinary Association, the veterinarians stated a suspected link between the rise in a Faconi-like syndrome and a pet treat manufactured in China.

According to the Australian Veterinary Association, it was at this point “AVA members were alerted via email (3 December 2008) and asked to report any similar cases to the specialist to enable further investigation of the syndrome.” As usually occurs in these situations the story was leaked to the press. Someone forwarded the email to a journalist for the Adelaide Advertiser, an Australian news source. The journalist in turn telephoned AVA president Mark Lawrie. The result of the phone interview and the email were featured in an article that appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on  December 8, 2008. Within hours the national media got wind of the story.

The situation continues to baffle the FDA.  Extensive tests for both chemical and microbial contamination have come up empty handed. To date no known contaminant has been found. Yet dogs (particularly small breeds) who consume these treats continue to fall victim to this Faconi-like syndrome. On the other hand, Dr. Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, vice president and medical director of the ASPCA’s Poison Control Center in Urbana, Illinois stated that the center received fewer than a dozen calls about the jerky treats in 2007 and 2008. She said the majority of those calls were inquiries. Only one case turned up with glucose in the urine (a sign of the Faconi-like syndrome). She went on to comment that, “It sounds like maybe they’re giving them the whole bag of Oreos.” Hence the reason for the FDA’s cautionary statement to not feed the treats as a substitute for regular food.

Nevertheless, once the KraMar product was withdrawn from the market incidents of the disease in Australia declined. In America the illness has not abated. In the latest twist, Canadian dogs are now getting sick. Cases of the Fanconi-like syndrome have been reported in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Closer to home, a recent case in Rockport, Texas involved a ten-year-old mixed breed dog named Sweetie. The concerned parent reported that Sweetie wasn’t doing well. Dr. Jeanna Godfrey examined the dog and drew blood. The blood test results revealed elevated liver enzymes and urinalysis indicated traces of glucose. Puzzled by this Dr. Godfrey queried the dog’s owner about the possibility of exposure to toxins. But this was eliminated. Then during her lunch break Dr. Godfrey noted an email alert from the AVMA about the Canadian cases. She promptly telephoned Sweetie’s owner and asked if Sweetie had eaten any chicken jerky treats. As it turns out Sweetie’s owner confirmed that the dog had indeed received these treats at the rate of three times a day for the past five months. When Sweetie’s pet parent brought in the bag Dr. Godfrey noted that it stated “manufactured in the U.S.” but in small print there were the words “made in China”!

Until the culprit that creates the Faconi-like syndrome is uncovered it is advisable that pet parents of small to medium dogs forgo giving their dogs any type of chicken jerky treat. If you decide that you must indulge your canine in this type of treat please limit the quantity. Additionally, watch your pet closely. If Fido begins to exhibit symptoms of diarrhea, nausea, lethargy, copious thirst, or frequent urination cease the treats immediately and take him to your veterinarian.

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