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The most common food hazards that can make pets ill are types of Mycotoxins - toxic substances that are by-products of certain species of mold (fungi) that can infect grain crops, especially crops that were subject to moisture late in the growing season or storage. This can be a greater concern than bacterial contamination, because Mycotoxins can't be "cooked out" in pet food production.


The two that most frequently affect pets are:

  • Vomitoxin (deoxynivalenol or DON), which, as the name suggests, causes severe vomiting and can result in the pet's death. Vomitoxin most commonly affects wheat and barley.
  • Aflatoxin, a toxin that is manufactured by one of several strains of Aspergillus. Corn is the most common host to the mold that makes aflatoxin. Liver damage and death can result when pets eat food that is contaminated with aflatoxins; the more the pet eats, the worse his prognosis.

How prevalent are Mycotoxins in pet food?


Mycotoxin contamination is not an uncommon occurrence in pet foods. Corn, wheat middlings and soybeans are the usual "pathway" ingredients. In a "sell it down the road" strategy, grain dealers often dump products which are deemed "unfit for human consumption" on the pet food industry (for the manufacture of pet-grade foods) -- to avoid suffering economic losses. There are few standards or government regulations in place, so many pet food companies do not institute quality-control programs that detect Mycotoxins in their products.


Usually, Mycotoxins end up in the news only when a massive contamination has affected a huge amount of pet food or a large number of pets. This occurred last year in the massive pet food recall of 2007, and the 2005 recall of 19 of the pet foods manufactured by Diamond Pet Foods after scores of deaths were traced to Aflatoxin in its foods.

Without large numbers of dead pets and its resulting media coverage, most owners (and even many veterinarians) may never learn about the possibility that a Mycotoxin can cause a pet's liver failure or neurological problem. However, this should be considered any time a pet with those symptoms is fed dry food, especially foods that contain corn, wheat, or barley.


Pet food makers generally have a number of strategies they can use to prevent Mycotoxin contamination. This may start with ingredient purchasing contracts with reliable producers, but should also include inspection and testing of each load of raw ingredients before the delivery is accepted at the manufacturing plant. This can be quite challenging at the highest-volume production facilities, however. This is undoubtedly why, historically, the largest Mycotoxin-poisoning events have involved companies that produce and sell massive amounts of pet food: Nature's Recipe in 1995, Doane Pet Care in 1998, Diamond in 2005, and Menu Foods in 2007.


Rely on a pet food retailer like PetHealthStore™ to stay aware of the most reliable suppliers of healthy dry and canned cat and dog foods.


A History of Problems


In October of 2004 The Whole Dog Journal published an article, "When Foods Go Bad", that discussed how pet owners could protect their pets from serious harm from contaminated or toxin-adulterated food. It outlined the lessons learned from the three previous commercial pet food disasters: the 1995 event involving Vomitoxin in Nature's Recipe dry foods; the 1998 Aflatoxin event involving dry dog foods made by Doane Products; and the still-unidentified problem that sickened and killed dogs who ate certain lots of Go! Natural dry food in 2003.


Since then, there have been two more well-publicized pet food recalls: the Aflatoxin poisonings caused by some dry foods made by Diamond Pet Food in late 2005, and the very recent event involving canned and dry pet food made by Menu Foods (a Canadian company still contract packing for many major brands).


These events - the most recent one in particular - have given us all quite a bit to think about, from the local - "How did my pet store respond to news of the recall?" to the global - "How does the global economy affect us?"; from the specific - "What foods are safe to buy for my pet right now?" – to the general – "What types of food pose the greatest risk to the consumer?".


Lessons learned


Past recalls have taught us the following:

  • You should always store dry pet food in the bag it came in - or, if you use a container, keep the bag until the food is used up. This keeps the date/code information with the food. If a problem arises, this information will be critical to a proper response and/or investigation. If you feed canned food, rinse each can and keep it for at least a week or two.
  • Don't feed your pet any food that looks or smells bad or abnormal. If a dry food is covered with green, hairy structures, it's moldy and should not be fed! Contact the food company or your local retailer and ask for a replacement. Usually, you will be asked to bring the food to the store from which it was purchased for a replacement. It helps if you retained the receipt, proving it was purchased from that store.
PetHealthStore™ will accept for credit
the return of any suspect food
no matter where you have purchased it.

  • Owners should always be alert to the response of their pets to their food. Vomiting or diarrhea are the most obvious signs of a problem with the food, but any changes in your pet's elimination and consumption patterns changes are notable. Write down and date any odd response or change in a notebook or on your calendar. Your memory is not as good as a written record.
  • With all but perennially fussy pets, it's significant when a pet declines or is reluctant to eat a food. This is important every time you open a new bag or can, but is also significant if the pet becomes increasingly reluctant the deeper you reach into the bag of food. In past cases where foods sickened animals, the individuals who ate the most of the bad food fared the worst.
  • So... stop feeding the food if your pet won't eat it, or if he becomes very reluctant to eat it. Contact its maker or a knowledgeable pet food retailer. Provide the date/code information, and ask specifically if there have been any other reports about that food recently. If you are still in doubt, look to change food brands.
  • The same goes, of course, if your pet becomes ill after eating a food. Stop feeding the food. Contact your veterinarian to discuss your pet's symptoms, and make sure the vet makes a note of your discussion in your pet's file. Get any sick pet to the veterinarian ASAP!

Your Veterinarian is aware that the
Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine
has developed a series of tests
to help determine the presence and
extent of Mycotoxin poisoning.

  • Following a bad reaction to one food, do provide your pet with another food, from a different company, while you monitor his response. If possible, feed him a product you can confirm is made (not just sold) by a different manufacturer.
  • Contact the maker of the suspect food to discuss, date/code information in hand. Be prepared to give the company your veterinarian's contact information also. When you contact the manufacturer, persist until you are satisfied that the company representative will record your complaint (including your pet's symptoms and the date/code information from the food). If you feel do not feel the manufacturer is being responsive, contact your veterinarian, or a reliable pet food retailer, to be your advocate.
  • Ask your veterinarian to report the suspected product to his or her state veterinarian and the FDA.

You get what you pay for


During the Menu Foods/wet foods/dry foods incident, we often heard owners saying, "We thought we were paying for the best foods available for our pets, and now this!" One of PetHealthStore's principles of pet food selection is that whole food ingredients are more desirable than food "fragments." This means wheat, "Yes!"; wheat gluten, wheat mill run, wheat bran, "No!"; Chicken meal, "Yes!"; chicken by-product meal, "No!"; This is for two main reasons.


First, unprocessed foods enjoy less exposure to potentially harmful agents in the course of processing, storage, and transport. Second, fresh and minimally processed foods are more nutritious than ingredients that are several operations (and perhaps many months and many miles) from harvest. Processing reduces the vitamin content of many foods, and can destroy any unique nutrient properties they may contain, such as enzymes, antioxidants, and flavonoids.

In some cases, the fractions used in low-cost pet food are truly "fillers," and comprised of the part of a food that human food manufacturers have little use for; peanut hulls and cereal fines come to mind here. In other cases, pet food formulators utilize certain fractions to provide just the right amount of a needed nutrient or attribute. Tomato pomace and beet pulp are examples of truly functional fragments.


Maximize your pets health. Ask us about the use of whole human-grade meats from named species of animals (i.e., chicken rather than poultry; beef rather than "meat") and meals made from whole meats from named species (chicken meal rather than poultry meal) provides both greater safety, and greater nutritive value. All animal proteins (even by-products, which tend to be of lower quality than muscle meats) have more to offer our carnivorous pets than plant-derived proteins, especially wheat and corn, and their glutens.


Maximize your pets health. Ask Us! Use foods with more meat content. We can't think of any pet food recall in the past 10 years that was due to a problem with the meat in the food, especially if the meat source is human-grade, and not its rejects (pet-grade).


Of course, pet foods that meet all of our selection criteria tend to be more expensive than lower quality brands. You can't expect top-quality ingredients to go into low-priced pet food.


You can always look to PetHealthStore™ to help
you maximize your pet's health with the use of
life-enhancing pet food recommendations.

Come in or call for free, or low-cost,
samples of healthy cat & dog foods!

Reference Articles

  1. Kvamme, J. Ingredients Under the Microscope,, 2007-08
  2. Stenske, K. A.; Smith, J. R.; Newman, S. J.; Newman, L. B.; Kirk, C. A. Aflatoxicosis in dogs and dealing with suspected contaminated commercial foods. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 2006, 228, 1686-1691
  3. Kerns, N. Pet Food Disaster, Whole Dog Journal, 2006-02
  4. Blaine, Protein Tests To Diagnose Pet Food-poisoned Dogs,, 2006-01
  5. Böhm, J.; Razzai-Fazeli, E. Effects of mycotoxins on domestic pet species. In The Mycotoxin Blue Book; Diaz, D., Ed.; Nottingham University Press: Nottingham, U.K., 2005; pp 77-91
  6. Whitaker, T. B. Standardization of mycotoxin sampling procedures: an urgent necessity. Food Control 2003, 14, 233-237
  7. Puschner, B. Mycotoxins. Vet. Clin. North Am. Small Anim. Pract. 2002, 32, 409-419


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        Mycotoxins -
         toxic substances in
         grain-based pet foods.
         Should we worry?