Dog poisoned by sachet in jerky treats; diagnosis: Iron intoxication

It’s one of those “Oh sh*t” moments.

You turn your back and your dog has inhaled the entire bag of treats, including that itty-bitty sachet of who-knows-what that are included in every package of treats.

You probably don’t know much about them, other than the “Do not eat” warning on them.  The unscientific explanation is they are in there to keep stuff fresh.

You’re thinking, just what in the *bleep* is in those damn bags anyway? Could it hurt my dog? Heck, come to think of it – could it be contaminating the jerky treats with something horrible?

Your mind races.

You Google it.

Google results: Nothing much, except a bunch of other hysterical pet parents.  Some say it’s just harmless silica, others swear it’s got something magnetic in it. Some say it is iron. Some say the iron could actually be scrap metal, some go further and say that scrap metal could be contaminated with radioactive material.

We know the product is irradiated – what happens when it, whatever “it” is, is nuked? What happens when you irradiate a radioactive material?

Is the info on the packages?  Oh please, don’t waste your time.  You know you’ll never get a straight answer from the manufacturer anyway, and if the product is from China – it’s a crap shoot.

However, you can be sure to get the truth here on Poisoned Pets, because digging up stuff to rake the pet food industry over the coals with is my favorite thing to do.

While feverishly poring over article after article, study after study about the effects of irradiation on food until I thought my head would explode, I came across the answer to your question:

Just what, in dog’s name, is in those freshness packets anyway and more importantly, will that stuff kill my dog?

The answer: It ain’t good

I can’t speak for all pet treat manufacturers, but in the case of the poisoned pup (see below) the main ingredient of the oxygen absorber he ate was iron.  And in the case of the poor pup that swallowed the little sachet filled with iron – it caused a nasty case of iron poisoning.

So, fair warning pet parents, the bags are bad and I don’t just mean the jerky, but those ubiquitous little pouches of poison can make your pup sick, very sick.  If he eats it, that is.

Now, what happens to iron when it’s irradiated?  I don’t know and I’ll bet you a-nickel-to-a-doughnut that  Purina, Milo’s, Dogswell and all the rest of the treat importers haven’t a clue either.  And if they do, they’re not talking.

Here’s the story that alerted me to the danger lurking in those ubiquitous oxygen absorber sachets:

Iron intoxication in a dog consequent to the ingestion of oxygen absorber sachets in pet treat packaging.

Oxygen absorbers are commonly used in packages of dried or dehydrated foods (e.g., beef jerky, dried fruit) to prolong shelf life and protect food from discoloration and decomposition.  They usually contain reduced iron as the active ingredient although this is rarely stated on the external packaging. Although reduced iron typically has minimal oral bioavailability, such products are potential sources of iron poisoning in companion animals and children.

We present a case of canine ingestion of an oxygen absorber from a bag of dog treats that resulted in iron intoxication necessitating chelation therapy.

A 7-month-old female Jack Russell terrier presented for evaluation of vomiting and melena 8-12 h after ingesting 1-2 oxygen absorber sachets from a package of dog treats. Serum iron concentration and ALT were elevated. The dog was treated with deferoxamine and supportive care. Clinical signs resolved 14 h following treatment, but the ALT remained elevated at the 3-month recheck.

The ingestion of reduced iron in humans has been reported to cause mild elevation of serum iron concentration with minimal clinical effects.

To our knowledge, no cases of iron intoxication following the ingestion of oxygen absorbers have been reported. The lack of ingredient information on the packaging prompted analysis of contents of oxygen absorber sachets. Results indicate the contents contained 50-70% total iron. This case demonstrates that iron intoxication can occur following the ingestion of such products. Human and veterinary medical personnel need to be aware of this effect and monitor serum iron concentrations as chelation may be necessary.

Source: J Med Toxicol. 2012 Mar;8(1):76-9, Brutlag AG, Flint CT, Puschner B; PMID: 22190175 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

What’s in those little sachets, anyway? 

In the packaging industry, those little packets or sachets, as they like to call them, inhabit the fascinating world of “active packaging” (who knew).

The terms active packaging refers to packaging systems used with preserve foods, pharmaceuticals, and other products.  In the case of the poisoned pup, the “active” ingredient in the sachet was iron.

Iron is a natural oxygen scavengers, and iron oxide powders are enclosed in the itty bitty sachets to control the oxygen environment in the package.

Inside the sachets is powdered iron, and as the iron rusts, oxygen is removed from the surrounding atmosphere.  Oxygen scavenging is one class of widely used active packaging technology, for example, whereby iron-based pouches or sachets are inserted into individual food packages to retard oxidation and spoilage.

Fascinating, huh?

Little bit o’ trivia: Did you know where this system of preservation originated? The military! Those poor boys needed to be kept alive with military rations, otherwise known as Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) or fondly referred to Meals Refused by Ethiopians (MRE) to the sorry recipients of such meals.  Their hard-as-tack grub which may or may not have reached them until one or two years after its date-of-pack had to still be edible, at least sort of.  And what better way to keep food indefinitely? Simply remove all the  moisture and oxygen.

The upshot?

Trouble is, knowing China’s frightening history of counterfeiting you-name-it and downright spooky industrial processing plants; we can only hope it actually is iron and not some freak mixture of lord-only-knows.  Think about the recent scare involving Petco’s stainless steel dog bowls contaminated with radioactive scrap metal containing Cobalt-60.

Not that you need one, but, now you have one more reason to be scared sh**less of anything from China.

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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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