As a veterinarian and lover of animals, I find that working at FDA is a dream job in many ways. In the Foods and Veterinary Medicine program, there are veterinarians in many different jobs that all have to do with keeping both people and animals safe.
Within the program, FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) is a working testimonial to animals and their companion people. Desks and office doors are covered with photos of pets — dogs and cats of course, horses for sure, and even our favorite reptiles, birds, cows, pigs, sheep and a few great goats. Water cooler conversations are full of stories about the antics of our friends and family members (with and without fur, fins or feathers) and the challenges of caring for an aging animal.
That’s why it means so much to us when we are able to target what is making an animal sick, and why it hurts, both personally and professionally, when the cause of illness eludes us despite global efforts to track it down.
As of September 24, 2013, over 3,600 dogs and 10 cats have reportedly become ill from eating jerky pet treats, nearly all of which were imported from China. While most pets have fully recovered, approximately 580 of these pets have died. The mystery that CVM is trying to solve is this: What is causing the reported illnesses and deaths in dogs (and some cats) that have eaten jerky pet treats made in China?
The Center has been investigating these illnesses and deaths since 2007, working with experts in academia, industry, foreign governments and state labs. CVM’s Office of Research has been working with the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN), a consortium of animal health labs nationwide, to examine both animal diagnostic and tissue samples from pets that have become ill and the jerky pet treats themselves.
Researchers in CVM labs, working together with other labs across the country, have tested jerky pet treats for microbiological contaminants, heavy metals and elements, pesticides, rodenticides, molds, antibiotics and other compounds. We’ve also analyzed hundreds of medical records and lab results, including examining and testing fluids and tissues of sickened pets. FDA inspection teams have visited manufacturing plants and suppliers in China and met with representatives from the Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), the Chinese regulatory agency responsible for pet food, to discuss U.S. requirements for pet food safety. Jerky pet treats from pet owner’s homes have been tested and compared with store samples. We’ve even made our own jerky to try to duplicate the commercial process.
So why don’t we know what exactly is causing these illnesses? We’re not sure, but we know that we need more information about the pets that are getting sick. In order to get that information, we need the help of pet owners and veterinarians. To that end, we have issued a “Dear Veterinarian” letter asking veterinary practitioners who treat animals they suspect may have been sickened by eating jerky treats to report these cases to CVM through the FDA Safety Reporting Portal right away so that we can suggest certain tests (and cover the cost of these tests in many cases) when appropriate. We are working with our partners in Vet-LIRN labs across the country to test urine, blood and tissue samples from ill pets that may have been sickened by jerky treats. This collaboration helps leverage our resources and pool scientific expertise for the greatest effect.
Despite extensive media coverage of the illnesses associated with these products and our own outreach efforts including through the CVM web site, we know there are still pet owners who are unaware of this issue. In response, FDA has developed a Fact Sheet for pet owners that can be made available at veterinary hospitals, pet supply stores, other stores selling pet food, and anywhere pet owners visit. The Fact Sheet explains what symptoms to look for, how to contact your local FDA office, and the status of our jerky pet treat investigation so far. We hope that these tools will help prevent more pets from becoming sick and will provide us with the clues we need to crack the case.
What we do know is that our pets bring joy to our lives. It’s our mission, both as public servants and animal lovers, to find – and eliminate – the cause of these illnesses.
By: Linda Tollefson, D.V.M.