Here in the United Kingdom, we’re behind the times. By this I mean that, until recently, U.K. pets have been spared the danger from toxic treats. But no longer are our pets are exempt.
The U.K.’s Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS) reports a sharp rise in treat-related toxicity since late 2015. Then, in February 2016, the Animal Health Trust (AHT) took the usual step of issuing a warning against feeding imported jerky treats. The latest news is that, just this month, the VPIS told all vets to warn pet families about the danger and to be alert for symptoms.
Sound familiar to you guys?
Still No Official Cause
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has still not identified the cause, though the agency has noted that “many of [the cases] involve products imported from China, which produces much of the jerky pet treats on the market.
Let’s hope further work benefits pets on both sides of the pond. A rise in U.K. cases could mean resurgence in the United States, so please be on the alert.
Although we don’t know why the treats trigger disastrous disease, we do know the outcome: Fanconi syndrome.
What Is Fanconi Syndrome?
This is a rare (or it was, at least) kidney disease. Indeed, with over 2 decades in companion animal practice, I’ve only seen a single case in a young springer spaniel.
The kidney is a bit like a sieve. One of its jobs is to filter out waste products and void them safely in the urine. Another is to recycle useful molecules such as glucose back into the bloodstream. Think of this as washing salad leaves: discarding the soil and slugs but keeping the lettuce.
With Fanconi syndrome, the part of the kidney that reclaims sugar is damaged. This means glucose washes right out of the body, like feeding those lettuce leaves straight into the garbage disposal.
As the sugar passes into the urine, it drags water with it, making the dog dehydrated. The dog (or cat) then drinks more to replace the lost fluid. Over time, the kidney damage gets worse, and the pet goes into full kidney failure.
What Are the Signs?
The signs are quite general and include:
- Increased thirst and producing bigger puddles of urine
- Reduced appetite
- Repeated bladder infections
- Weight loss
- Poor coat
- Bad breath
- Muscle weakness
- Thinning bones (in the later stages)
Typically, the vet reaches a diagnosis through a combination of blood and urine tests. The “smoking gun” is glucose in urine but with a normal blood sugar level. This combination is unusual and rarely happens under normal circumstances.
Importantly, the sooner a suspected case is treated, the better that pet’s chances of recovery. So if you’re concerned at all, take your pet to a vet without delay.
What Causes Fanconi Syndrome?
My case was a young spaniel — and its circumstances fit with inherited disease that can affect dogs between 1 and 6 years of age. However, the jerky-related cases are due to an unknown factor.
A quick browse of my vet textbooks reveals several things that can bring on Fanconi syndrome. These are:
- Heavy metal poisoning from metals such as lead, cadmium or mercury
- Antibiotics, such as gentamicin or out-of-date tetracyclines
- Kidney infections
- And, somewhat unhelpfully, “jerky treat ingestion”
Even 2 years ago, the link between jerky treats and pet illnesses/deaths was newsworthy:
Now here’s the rub. Caught early, some cases respond to supportive care as long as the inciting cause (jerky treat) is removed. However, it’s mostly a matter of how much damage was done initially as to how well (or poorly) the pet does.
Since it’s not known what specifically causes the damage, it’s not possible to give an antidote. The treatment is therefore targeted at preventing dehydration and correcting imbalances in the body that go alongside peeing out lots of nutrients.
For some cases, this means intravenous fluids via a drip to keep flushing the kidneys and prevent organ damage due to dehydration. A tablet supplement also helps replace lost potassium, which causes muscle weakness. That weak, sugary urine is a lovely food for bacteria, so keeping tabs on bladder infections is also a good idea.
In addition, drugs such as ACE inhibitors and a special diet can help the kidney make the most of its remaining function.
Help Your Pet — Ditch the Jerky Treats
Ultimately, Fanconi syndrome is serious, so prevention is better than cure.
Until we know more about how these treats are toxic and the safety of jerky — imported or not — is guaranteed, not feeding these types of treats to your pet remains by far the safest option.
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2018 Update: According to the FDA, cases of suspected jerky treat toxicity peaked in 2013–2015. Since then, despite better recording of cases and raised awareness of the problems, the numbers of cases has fallen consistently. However, it’s not clear if this decrease is due to jerky treats being safer now or consumers no longer buying them.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.