A deadly outbreak affecting dogs in Australia linked to dog food could be tied a similar outbreak in Latvia. The disease in Australia has now killed almost a dozen police dogs and an untold number of service dogs and pet dogs. The toll in Australia has risen to at least thirty-four dogs that are “starving to death” as a result of an illness that prevents food from entering their stomachs.
Now, a link between sick and dying dogs in two countries might lead to the answer as to why dogs are dying in Australia at record numbers of a once extremely rare disease.
Just as with the ill dogs in Australia, the dogs in Latvia were diagnosed with the same rare disease: Megaesophagus, a disease that typically has nothing to do with pet food. Oddly, both countries came to the same surprising and unexpected conclusion: The problem was definitively linked to dog food. Not the same dog food, but two different dog foods, made by two different companies in two different countries.
More than three years ago, veterinary pathologist Ilze Matīs-van Houtan in Latvia, began seeing an alarming uptick in the number of dogs diagnosed with the rare disease. Later, she discovered that some of the dogs also had a rare condition called polyneuropathy, an illness which causes changes in nerve impulse conduction, atrophy of muscles, and generalized weakness. But, the pathologist and her colleagues could not find any explanation for the dramatic increase in the number of cases of dogs with the diseases except that nearly all the dogs had been fed the same dog food.
After months of research, the scientists in Latvia tested the food for countless toxins, including lead and other heavy metals, thallium, acrylamide, ionophores, botulism, mycotoxins and pesticides and they found none. Matīs-van Houtan’s team admitted that they were unable to find a toxin that would explain the link between the food the dogs ate and the disease, saying, “Despite extensive toxicological screening a conclusive toxin has not been found yet.” Even though none had been found, the Latvian Society of Veterinarians announced that although the causative agent has not been clarified, the link with the dog food is “unequivocal,” adding that there is a substance that should not be present in dog feed.
When news spread about the sick dogs in Latvia, news reports, veterinarians, and social media warned consumers not to feed the suspected food to their dogs and eventually the number of new cases dwindled. And the news of Matīs-van Houtan’s findings led Latvia’s State Food and Veterinary Service (PVD) to investigate the suspected dog food.
UREA NOT TO BLAME
The PVD confirmed that traces of urea (also known as carbamide) had been found in the suspect dog food. As a result, the dog food was recalled because urea is not allowed in pet food. The PVD advised owners not to feed the “contaminated feed” to their dogs, explaining that, “Carbamide is a feed additive authorized for use in ruminants’ feed but banned as toxic in dog and cat food.” Since the dog food was removed from store shelves, the number of cases fell to what they were before the outbreak began.
Matīs-van Houtan confirmed, “Urea is not a toxin that has caused our dogs to have megaesophagus or polyneuropathy,” and that the reason for its use in feed is to “artificially raise the protein level or its parameters in the feed,” adding that “it does not have to be in food.”
Two months after the recall, the PVD inspectors back-peddled, saying their testing was flawed and further testing by a lab in Austria gave them different test results. The Austrian lab confirmed the reports were incorrect, “that urea has not been detected in the tested feed samples.” The Latvian State Food and Veterinary Service said it had lifted restrictions on the recalled dog food, claiming that a foul-up in a Danish laboratory was responsible for earlier results suggesting that it was potentially unsafe.
The neurotoxin that could cause the disease was never found. In the proceedings of a veterinary medicine conference at Latvia University last year said that, “Despite extensive toxicological screening the conclusive toxin has not been found yet.”
After the pet food was removed from the market and cases of megaesophagus dropped to the single digits, Matīs-van Houtan’s team promised to continue to look for the faulty neurotoxin, saying their work is not over, “because the neurotoxin that we are looking for has not yet been identified.”
The story of megaesophagus is a particularly tragic one. Anyone who has seen a picture of a starving dog can only begin to imagine the devastation. Megaesophagus is not just extremely rare but it a particularly heartbreaking. It is an illness that prevents dogs from swallowing food and drinking water, while helpless pet owners watch in despair as their cherished dogs fade away and die. The disease causes a dog’s esophagus to become abnormally enlarged, and dogs then lose their ability to swallow or absorb nutrients and most will eventually die from a lack of nutrition. It’s pretty much a death sentence.
THANK YOU, ILZE
I contacted Ilze for this article, and she was kind enough to write me back and tell me she is aware of the dogs in Australia and that she and her colleagues in Latvia and the U.S. are “following closely the developments.”
She wanted to emphasize that, “urea is NOT the neurotoxin that we were looking for — in the amounts that we found and in a few samples that it was present it could not have caused ME.”
She told me that they have not found the toxin that is responsible for ME, but they hope the outbreak in Australia will move research forward. She told me her team still has samples in the U.S. that need to be tested, “but work is moving very slow because we do it mostly as volunteers” and crowd funding. She has hopes that the answer to this tragic disease and it’s connection to pet food will one day be found. Perhaps, now, with the worldwide attention the dogs in Australia are receiving, it will help researchers put an end to this devastating disease
HELP RESEARCHERS FIND THE ANSWER
Help Ilke and her team continue this important work by making a donation in her name to Poisoned Pets. Simply put “Ilke” or “Latvia” or any other note indicating that your donation will be used to help fund her life-saving work.
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