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The Terrible Truth About Euthanasia Drugs in Pet Food

More accountability and quality control are desperately needed.

Euthanasia Drugs in Pet Food
Seriously? Euthanasia drugs in pet food? The industry needs to step it up to keep our dogs and cats healthy. Photo: massahirotama

For a decade now, Petful has been dutifully tracking recalls on pet foods.

In 2017, a number of Evanger’s and Against the Grain dog foods were found to contain pentobarbital, a deadly barbiturate often used as a euthanasia drug.

Then, just a year later, it happened again: Numerous Smucker’s pet foods, including Gravy Train, Kibbles ‘N Bits and Ol’ Roy, were recalled because they, too, may have contained pentobarbital.

Although all recalls are of concern because they put our pets in danger and make us lose even more faith in the pet food industry, most pet food recalls are for relatively smaller-scale problems like salmonella contamination.

But when we start finding significant doses of euthanasia drugs in pet food — well, that may be a completely different story.

Euthanasia Drugs in Pet Food

Pentobarbital is a barbiturate most commonly used in the euthanasia of pets and horses.

Animals or animal byproducts intended for food consumption are never supposed to be euthanized with a drug like pentobarbital. They are supposed to be killed in slaughterhouses, usually by the captive bolt method.

Only the sickest “downer” cow that can’t make it in transit might be euthanized with pentobarbital. These animals are picked up by animal renderers.

If the renderer knows the animal was euthanized with drugs, no part of that animal or animal byproduct may be sold to a pet food company.

Why It’s in Pet Foods

The most likely explanation for pentobarbital in pet food is the presence of a euthanized animal in the food chain.

When pentobarbital is found in pet food, people have jumped to the unsettling conclusion that euthanized dogs and cats were used to manufacture the pentobarbital-contaminated pet food, since euthanizing dogs and cats is the most common use of this drug.

Rest assured, though, that dog and cat meat has not been found in any of these recalled foods.

DNA testing has proved that horse meat was found in the Evanger’s pentobarbital-tainted food, and Smucker’s is reporting that only DNA from cows, sheep and pigs was found in the animal fat contaminated with pentobarbital. They claim they are stepping up their screening for pentobarbital.

But is that too little too late? All batches should have been screened for pentobarbital at all times.

Smucker’s should also reconsider the use of the cheapest meal and fat products in their foods and check the integrity of their supply chains before winning back the public’s trust.

Pentobarbital Danger

Let’s look at the most highly documented cases researched by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding euthanasia drugs in pet food:

  • In 2002, after pentobarbital was found in pet food, the veterinary division of the FDA did an in-depth study of how dangerous pentobarbital is when consumed by dogs. The levels found in 2002 were considered not dangerous and were at least 50 times below a level that would even make a minor change in a dog’s liver.
  • In 2017, pentobarbital was found in Evanger’s dog food. The level was high enough to cause death in one dog. More on this sad case in a bit.
  • The 2018 Smucker’s pentobarbital investigation points to a low level of the drug in the food, hopefully not enough to cause long-lasting or even mild chronic damage to a dog.

Small amounts of pentobarbital are cleared as a toxin in a normally functioning liver of an animal or person.

Take it from me, a veterinarian — I checked into that the first time I accidentally sprayed euthanasia solution all over my face and tasted that thick, bitter drug on my lips and in my mouth.

That happened because my needle was not securely on the syringe. Yuck and stupid on many levels!

The few drops of 100% straight pentobarbital solution I ingested was a much greater dose than the trace levels of the drug found in most of these tainted pet foods.

That being said, I don’t intend to repeat the event, and pentobarbital should never be found in any foods.

Screening for Euthanasia Drugs in Pet Food

When pet food batches are properly screened for pentobarbital and other toxins, the technology can pick up minuscule amounts of pentobarbital — amounts far less than the FDA says could be dangerous, even if fed daily to your dog.

In over 1 million pounds of meat, one animal that was euthanized with pentobarbital can be detected in 5,400 clean animals.

That being said, there is zero tolerance for pentobarbital in pet food. Any amount of the drug found in pet food is a violation, and the pet food company is at fault, regardless of where the tainted meat or byproduct came from.

The FDA puts it this way:

“FDA considers pet food containing pentobarbital residues to be adulterated.… [W]e do not allow the use of animals euthanized with a chemical substance such as pentobarbital in the manufacture of pet foods. There is currently no set tolerance for pentobarbital in pet food and detection of its presence renders the product adulterated.”

The Pet Food Manufacturer Is Responsible

In terms of the Evanger’s disgrace in 2017, a small dog died due to the amount of pentobarbital in the food. This was a far more serious infraction than a tiny amount of pentobarbital in an animal byproduct. Most likely, euthanized animals were used as the meat source in the Evanger’s food.

In the Gravy Train/Kibbles ’n Bits debacle in 2018, the pentobarbital most likely came from rendered animal fat or low-grade meat meal product.

“Meat” and “meat byproducts” can come only from cows, sheep, goats and pigs. A veterinarian who is an adviser to the AAFCO Feed Ingredient Definitions explained that rendered products like “meat meal,”  “meat and bone meal” and “animal fat” may contain tissues from any mammal other than those 4 animals listed above.

These meal and animal fat products, usually purchased from an unscrupulous, independent, bottom-of-the-barrel supplier, are most likely to contain drug residues.

Meat and bone meal is one ingredient. It is true junk and often used in very cheap food like Ol’ Roy.

This is very different from a specific named meat “byproduct,” which can come only from slaughtered cows, sheep, goats or pigs where no pentobarbital is used.

Euthanasia Drugs in Pet Food
Do you know what’s in your dog or cat’s food? Photo: BuzzFarmers

The Sad State of the Pet Food Industry

Unfortunately, I think pentobarbital may one day be found again in pet food because the suppliers of meat meal, bone meal and animal fat sold to pet food companies may use animals killed with pentobarbital.

A news article from May 2019 serves as a scary case in point: Petfood Industry magazine reported that one supplier “continued to sell pentobarbital-contaminated tallow to pet food companies after the [FDA] had alerted the pet food ingredient supplier of the drug’s presence.”

It is the responsibility of the pet food industry to step up its game, buy from reputable sources and be rigorous with its quality controls.

Profit motive rules pet food companies. For “cheap” pet foods, the desire to manufacture pet foods as inexpensively as possible is their reason for being.

In my opinion, you have the least risk when you buy a high-quality, more expensive pet food from a large company. It doesn’t hurt to buy from a company that supports the veterinary industry because they don’t want us on their bad side.

As for reading labels, don’t put too much stock in their claims or expect to understand all the terminology. It’s a devious world out there. I wish I had a more hopeful message.


vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Aug. 10, 2019.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.