New finding could help solve jerky treat mystery

Have you ever heard of Clostridium perfingens in connection with the jerky dog treats from China?

A veterinarian from Roseville, California has.

Veterinarian James Reynolds says he’s found a link between four of his canine patients to chicken dog snacks. The usually mild-mannered veterinarian, was unnerved by what he found. So much so, he thought the finding significant enough to report to the California Veterinary Medical Board.

In the span of two weeks, Dr. Reynolds had four canine patients test positive for Clostridium perfringens enterotoxin. Which might have been unremarkable, except that each dog was from a separate family. And each family had one thing in common: they fed their dogs chicken jerky treats. And all of them had bought their product from one store: Costco.

What is Clostridium perfingens?

Clostridium perfringens is a bacteria, one species out of numerous Clostridia. Clostridial diseases are very classic in medicine, both veterinary and human. C. perfringens, a Gram-positive anaerobic bacterium, is present in most of the soil on the planet and in the gut of nearly every animal, including humans. Basically, it’s as common as dirt. Literally.

When good bacteria go bad

This ubiquitous microorganism can be a normal, everyday garden-variety inhabitant of the intestine of most animal species, including humans, but when the intestinal environment is altered by sudden changes in diet or other factors it turns into a decidedly unhappy camper, C. perfringens pathogen proliferates and produces potent toxins with usually devastating effects.

This common-as-dirt bacteria usually doesn’t cause trouble until it has a really bad day and some stressful event or diet change in the animal allows it to overgrow and make protective forms called spores. Those angry little spores fill up with a toxin, burst, and release their deadly payload right inside poor Fido’s intestines, creating intestinal havoc.

Which Clostridia are bad?

This is the crux of the problem. C. perfringens can be cultured from the feces of 80% of dogs whether they have diarrhea or not.  While we know that C. perfringens enterotoxin certainly causes diarrhea, mysteriuosly, only some dogs seem to be unaffected.

Often, dogs may carry the bacteria in their intestines for months or years before another illness, or a period of extreme emotional stress, weakens their immune system and leads to more serious infection. Symptoms of infection occur when these bacteria become too numerous in a dog’s body.

The organism can be consumed in food and when it arrives in the small intestine, it sporulates (forms a spore) and begins to produce its toxin. Alternatively, the organism may have been happily and innocuously living in the intestine for who knows how long when something causes it to get really mad, sporulate and produce toxin. The trigger may be dietary, related to infection with another organism or even related to the administration of a medication.

Clostridia contaminated treats?

The same gruesome process that occurs in Fido’s intestines can also occur outside the animal while free in the environment, such as in food or soil. In the right environment with the right nutrients, the spores will open up, or sporulate, releasing dangerous toxins, possibly turning the tasty treats into a toxic cesspool.

How Clostridia may be related to Fanconi syndrome

Fanconi syndrome, once an orphan kidney disease isolated mainly to one breed of dog, the Basenji, has become linked inextricably to the consumption of the toxic treats.

Fanconi syndrome causes renal (kidney) tubule damage, which can be caused by a several factors. One of those factors may be an infection caused by C. perfringens.

Stay with me here, this is where it get’s kind of technical: We know that glucose is an abnormal finding in urine, but what does that mean for dogs that have consumed jerky treats? Answer: Trouble, with a capital T.

In pathologic glucosuria one of the possible causes of abnormal proximal renal tubule function stood out as a possible explanation to the link between the veterinarian’s findings and Fanconi syndrome:

That renal tubule damage could be due to a C. perfringens infection. In particular, C. perfringens epsilon-toxin accumulates predominantly in the kidney.  Those toxins essentially overwhelm the body, leaving the major organs vulnerable to disease.

Solving a mystery

Is this the answer to solving the mystery of the tainted treats?

I can’t say I fully understand the finding, but it certainly appears to be a promising clue certainly worthy of further investigation.

Naturally, the findings would have to be duplicated and the treats would have to be tested for C. perfingens. But, if it provides even a glimpse into solving the mystery of the poisonous treats, Dr. Reynolds, will have the undying gratitude of pet parents everywhere.

I want to thank Dr. Reynolds for his invaluable insight and helping me understand more about what may be a factor in solving the mystery of the tainted treats.

Fox40 News Report; Chinese Dog Treats Linked to Roseville Dog Illnesses

FDA investigates illnesses related to chicken jerky pet treats; FAQs on chicken jerky pet treats
List of pet jerky consumer complaints (includes product names)

Indispensible Resources for Pet Parents:
Report a Pet Food Complaint to the FDA
Contact your state FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator
Veterinary Adverse Event  Reporting

1. Eiji Tamai, Tetsuya Ishida, Shigeru Miyata, Osamu Matsushita, Hirofumi Suda, Shoji Kobayashi, Hiroshi Sonobe, Akinobu Okabe. 2003. Accumulation of Clostridium perfringens Epsilon-Toxin in the Mouse Kidney and Its Possible Biological Significance. Infect Immun. 71(9): 5371–5375.

2. Hooper AN and Roberts BK. 2011. Fanconi Syndrome in Four Non-Basenji Dogs Exposed to Chicken Jerky Treats. JAAHA 47(6):e178-e186.

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Mollie Morrissette

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

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