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The “mystery” of the jerky treat poisoning in dogs continues to be perpetuated in the media

As the illness and death of dogs due to deadly dog treats drags on, many wonder why the answer to the problem with the treats remains a so-called “mystery” in the eyes of the media.

Seven years have passed since the first reports trickled in, the reason for their deaths has eluded the best and brightest minds in science, according to media reports.

The rationale the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses to explain their failure to find the answer(s) to the problem are continually repeated by news reports further perpetuating the myth that solving the mystery remains elusive:

However, FDA officials and veterinary experts who’ve been tracking the problem say it’s just not that easy. The FDA can’t force product recalls without a reason, said Martine Hartogensis, a deputy director at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. And so far, the FDA and a network of veterinary labs have failed to find a specific problem. To date, testing for contaminants in jerky treats has not revealed a cause for the illnesses, Hartogensis told NBC News.

It is maddening to repeatedly read the same worn-out excuse that the FDA has tested the toxic treats for every toxin under the sun, but have found essentially nothing that would explain the symptoms seen in dogs.

Yet, I believe, they already have they answer. It’s been there since multiple antibiotics were found in the imported treats by the New York State Department and Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) nearly two years ago.

That should have been the aha moment, but the FDA will not or cannot say for certain the antibiotic drugs were the cause of the illness and death of dogs. Instead, all they have to go on are handful of existing studies and literature on adverse effects of drugs in dogs. None of those studies address trace amounts of drug residues in foods for animals.

Therefore, scientists cannot be certain they are the cause – unless they conduct studies on dogs, which would be a protracted process that could take years.

Meanwhile, irritating news reports continue to misunderstand the problem and make nonsensical remarks like this:

“Part of the problem is that millions of pets in the U.S. eat jerky treats every year, but only a fraction of those that consume the products actually get sick,” Murphy said. “That’s in contrast to melamine-tainted pet food in 2007, which sickened a high proportion of animals that ate it. When pets are affected by jerky treats, the symptoms — gastrointestinal problems, kidney issues — can be vague and explained by other ailments.”

Actually, the most likely reason is a rare reaction to a class of antibiotics that affects only a fraction of of the canine population: Sulfonamide hypersensitivity syndrome. Because it only affects 3% to 7% of the canine population, it explains why so few dogs appear to be affected.

The most likely suspect

Dr. Dan McChesney, director of the FDA’s surveillance arm of Center for Veterinary Medicine, told Susan Thixton and I in a recent conversation that the drug allergy hypothesis is to date their most promising explanation. However, Dr. McChesney was quick to add that the problem with the syndrome is validating it in a scientific setting.

This brings me to another bone of contention: that the Agency lacks the ability to validate the testing of drug residues in the treats (from the same article previously mention):

…Another issue is that there are few validated tests sensitive enough to detect some contaminants. In January, New York state agriculture officials used tests that found trace amounts of unapproved antibiotics in the treats… …but, 10 months later, FDA officials still say the agency hasn’t validated its own tests to detect antibiotic adulterants a move that could keep more treats away from pets. “It takes a while to develop the method and to demonstrate that you can repeat it,” Hartogensis said.

Not a priority

Yet, when I asked a toxicologists at the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, the same laboratory that found drug residues in the treats recalled in January, she laughed when I asked about this so-called problem. She said, that the Agency has known for 10 months what their method was, and when I asked for an explanation as to why they aren’t using it she said, “Obviously it is not their priority.”

Weapons of choice

Another disturbing consequence of the Agency’s refusal to acknowledge the sulfonamide hypersensitivity theory is that manufacturers and retailers will continue to use their failure as a legitimate excuse for continuing to market the products. And for every pet parent suing a pet treat company, that argument, is the weapon of choice for attorneys to use against them.

Dear Veterinarian

The Agency’s Dear Veterinarian letter failed to address a plausible explanation. It failed to point them to an avenue of investigation to consider: nowhere were the words allergy, drugs, antibiotics, or sulfonamides mentioned.  They could have addressed the possibility of drug allergy, but they didn’t. Because of that omission, veterinarians may not consider consulting an allergists to see if there may be a connection between drug allergy and the consumption of the treats contaminated with antibiotic residue in their patient.

Faulty investigation

A senior veterinary toxicologists at Cornell University told me, on the promise of anonymity, that she didn’t think the FDA is handling the investigation well at all. When asked for details, she would only say that the central problem lied in the Agency’s failure to offer veterinarians a method of making a differential diagnosis.


As long as the Agency continues to disavow any connection to drug allergy and until they acknowledge drug allergy could be the most likely explanation, the problem might continue to remain an unsolved mystery indefinitely. And reporters will continue to the add to the hysteria and hand wringing by perpetuating the myth of the mystery of the jerky treats.

Jerky Pet Treats
How to Report a Pet Food Complaint
Veterinary Adverse Event Voluntary Reporting
Veterinary Adverse Event Reporting for Manufacturers

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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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