Rewarding your dog or cat with pet jerky treats could be a mistake -- one that could be fatal for your pet.
In the past five years, more than 3,600 US dogs and about 10 US cats have become ill after eating jerky treats, with about 580 deaths. The relationship between the jerky treats and the sudden illness is clear, but the exact cause remains unknown.
"This is one of the most elusive and mysterious outbreaks we've encountered," Bernadette Dunham, DVM, PhD and director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine said in a statement outlining the problem.
Not a New Problem
Jordan Smith of Austin, TX, gave her two elderly dogs chicken jerky as a Christmas treat in December 2006; both dogs took sick within a few hours, according to a New York Times blog. One dog died within a week and the other within a month. (Smith was financially compensated for the loss of her dogs by the manufacturer, under an agreement that bars her from revealing the company's name, but Smith said she recently saw the same brand of treats still for sale to consumers.)
The FDA first cautioned consumers about jerky treats in September 2007, and has issued additional warnings since then.
This January, a number of jerky treats were pulled from the market -- including Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch brands distributed by Nestle -- after testing by a New York state lab found traces of antibiotic drugs in samples of those products.
The number of reports of jerky-related pet illness did drop in the following months, but the FDA says it's unlikely the low levels of antibiotics caused the problems, and the decrease in reports may have occurred simply because fewer jerky treats were available to consumers.
Symptoms to Watch For
The illness does not appear to be related to any one brand or kind of pet jerky treats, although the majority of products involved are made in China. The FDA reports that in the past five years, it has received more than 3,000 complaints of jerky-related pet illnesses.
Pets typically become sick within hours of eating treats sold as jerky tenders or strips of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes and/or dried fruit. Symptoms can include lack of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea (possibly with blood or mucus), drinking lots of water and peeing frequently. Serious cases can involve skin issues, convulsions or the complete collapse of the pet.
What's Being Done
More than 1,200 samples have been tested and the FDA has inspected several factories in China, but nothing has been found that would explain the mysterious illnesses. It's a difficult process to connect unknown ingredients in products with pets located nationwide.
"Not only are we trying to identify the smoking gun, or source, which would be the food, but we try to make a strong connection between the illness and the patient," Dr. Lisa Murphy, an assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine told CBSNews.com. "You want to find some evidence that the same toxic substance in the food product is in the dog."
In October the FDA released an open letter to veterinarians, asking them to report any suspected jerky-related pet illness.
What to Do
The FDA provides a fact sheet for pet owners.
Although most of the suspected treats were manufactured in China, the lack of a "made in China" label is not a guarantee: US law does not require companies to list the country of origin of pet food ingredients.
If you suspect your pet has a jerky-related illness, get the animal help immediately (don't wait a few days to see if vomiting or diarrhea stops), and work with your veterinarian to make sure the FDA is properly notified. (Do not call the FDA directly without involving your vet, as this will slow down the reporting process.)
Among other details, your vet will need to know the exact name of the product and how it was given to the animal; the lot number on the packaging, if it is available; and when and where the product was purchased.
According to Dunham at the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, the agency is sharing data with US pet food companies, has set up contracts with diagnostic labs, is meeting regularly with Chinese officials to coordinate findings, and will host Chinese scientists at the FDA's veterinary research facility to increase scientific cooperation on this problem."Our fervent hope as animal lovers is that we will soon find the cause of -- and put a stop to -- these illnesses," Dunham said in the FDA's statement.