Hysteria cat style

Pet food safety for hysterics; how to handle a pet foodborne illness and who to report it to

A panic-stricken pet parent gripping a can of cat food, eyes glazed with fear and teetering dangerously on the verge of complete hysteria asks a friend, “But, but what do I do now!?!”

Which is a perfectly normal reaction when a person realizes their fur-baby just ate a recalled pet food.

“It’s contaminated with what!?!” screams the friend, not realizing she just pushed her over the edge.

When sheer panic sets in, all common-sense goes right out the window.

After pet parents consult with friends or anyone else in close proximity and they don’t get the reassurance they are looking for, usually proceed to the next option: They do what every sensible person does when they’ve got a medical question — they consult Dr. Google.

Which might be OK, if you’re looking for advice on treating foot fungus or ingrown toenails, but it’s probably not the best place to go when your nerves are shattered.

In the absence of a sensible friend with a cup of chamomile tea and a hug, there’s really nothing more reassuring than a good ol’ fashioned guide heavily sprinkled with common sense (preferably read while not in the middle of a meltdown).

Deep breaths now…

Rule no. 1: Assume the worst

  • This is the hardest part, but trust me, once you do this the rest of your life will be smooth sailing, pet food safety wise: Err on the side of caution and assume that all pet foods and treats are contaminated. Just as with USDA inspected and approved meat for humans, it is assumed that it may already be contaminated with pathogenic organisms. Therefore, consumers are advised to follow strict hygiene practices when handling meat.
  • The same guidance applies to pet food and treats.
  • Although your pet food may have already been cooked, there are numerous ways for it to still become contaminated.
  • Do not assume because it has been cooked that it is safe (pathogen wise).

It’s in my house – now what?

  • It may sound obvious, but if your pet’s food is recalled, immediately stop feeding the product to your pet and thoroughly clean any surfaces that the food may have come in contact with.
  • It’s best not allow young children, the elderly or people who are immune compromised to come in contact with any pet food, regardless of whether it has been recalled, or allow them to touch surfaces or objects that pet food may have come in contact with.
  • Most people who fall ill from pet food do so by handling contaminated food or having contact with infected animals. Thorough hand washing after serving pet food or touching pets is always recommended to avoid potential pathogen transmission.

Your pet ate it?

  • If your pet consumed a recalled product, consult your veterinarian, even if your pet does not appear to have any symptoms.
  • When dogs or cats do become infected with a foodborne illness, they typically suffer observable symptoms such as diarrhea, but some pets may serve as carriers without showing any symptoms, shedding the pathogen in their stools, or harboring it on their fur or in their saliva.

Do not take it back

  • Do not return the product to the place of purchase, at least not right away. Most recall notices tell consumers to return the recalled products to the store where they were purchased for a full refund or thrown it away in a secure area not accessible to animals, but I don’t recommend that. You might need that critical evidence and information if you or your pet becomes ill.

Save the evidence

  • Consumers often transfer dry pet food into other containers for easier handling. If possible, save the original packaging until the pet food has been consumed. The packaging contains important information often needed to identify the variety of pet food, the manufacturing plant, and the production date.
  • If the food was recalled, keep a portion of the recalled food in zip-lock plastic bag (preferably in the freezer) for up to six months in the event you or your pet become ill.

 If you get sick

  • In order for the health authorities to establish an outbreak is occurring people must first report foodborne illnesses.
  • If you suspect you may have become ill after handling a contaminated food it is vital that you contact your local (county or city) health department.

If your pet gets sick

  • Report complaints about a pet food product electronically through the Safety Reporting Portal or you can call your state’s FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators.
  • Try to have as much of the following information available when submitting your complaint: the exact name of the product and product description, the type of container, the lot number, the best by, best before or expiration date, the UPC code, and the net weight;
  • Purchase date and exact location where purchased;
  • Results of any laboratory testing performed on the pet food product;
  • Previous health status of pet and any pre-existing conditions your pet has;
  • Whether you give your pet any other foods, treats, dietary supplements or drugs;
  • How much of the product you still have;
  • Clinical signs exhibited by your pet;
  • Your veterinarian’s contact information, diagnosis and medical records for your pet;
  • Results of any diagnostic laboratory testing performed on your pet;

 Beg your veterinarian to make a report

  • It is preferred that you ask your veterinarian to contact the FDA, because your veterinarian can often provide additional information and details that can aid the investigation. I cannot stress enough how critical this step is. Veterinarians only need to suspect a food may have been associated with your pet’s illness in order for them to make a report.

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and advisor to AAFCO. Help support her work by making a donation today.

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