The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began receiving reports in 2006 regarding dogs becoming ill – sometimes fatally ill – shortly after being fed dried chicken “jerky” treats. Most, but not all, of the treats mentioned in these reports were made or sourced in China. A small but steady number of reports continued to trickle into FDA, with the trickle becoming a flood in 2012 and 2013. Most of the cases reported to FDA involve chicken jerky, but increasingly, dried sweet potato treats and dried duck jerky have also been implicated. As of September 24, 2013, FDA has received reports of more than 3,600 dogs and 10 cats who have gotten sick after eating dried jerky treats; at least 580 dog deaths have been linked to these treats.
No single agent has been found to be responsible for the illnesses and deaths; the cause is still a mystery. According to FDA, about 60 percent of the reports are for gastrointestinal illness (with or without elevated liver enzymes); about 30 percent relate to kidney or urinary signs. The remaining 10 percent of cases involve a variety of other signs, including convulsions, tremors, hives, and skin irritation.
Here are five things you can do to keep your dog safe from whatever toxin or hazard may be present in jerky treats.
1. Don’t buy any dried jerky treats! Let’s keep in mind that these cases all involve treats – not a vital staple in a dog’s diet. There is no limit to the number of safe, healthy alternatives to jerky treats; look for them in your refrigerator! Give your dog tiny pieces of last night’s roasted chicken, bits of sausage plucked out of the leftover pasta dish, tiny cubes of whatever cheese might be on hand, or a spoonful of yogurt.
However, if you simply cannot imagine not giving your dog dried jerky treats, read on.
2. Buy only those treats that unequivocally state that they are made, and all ingredients are sourced, in the U.S. It’s no longer enough for a product to say that it’s made in the USA; look for a clear statement on the label asserting that all the ingredients are sourced within the U.S.
3. Stop feeding any treat if your dog vomits, loses his appetite, or has diarrhea within hours or days of eating them. Increased drinking and/or urination and decreased activity are other common signs of trouble caused by these treats. Retain the remainder of any treats you have – or at least the package.
4. Report any problem your dog has following consumption of a jerky treat. The online reporting process is simple; go to safetyreporting.hhs.gov. Alternatively, ask your veterinarian to help you file a report.
5. Make your own jerky treats. It’s ridiculously easy. You can use a dehydrator (as described in “Dry It Yourself!” in WDJ May 2012) or a long stint (about six or seven hours) in your oven at a low temperature (170º F. works nicely). Cut meat or sweet potatoes into strips of even thickness; place on baking sheets (use non-stick spray); and check every hour or so, turning each strip over so that all of them dry evenly.
One advantage of making your own jerky is that you can stop the process when the jerky gets to the texture (chewiness) that you desire. Most commercial jerky products are excessively dry and hard; this is done to reduce the opportunity for bacterial growth. However, one area of investigation into illnesses caused by these treats focuses on the potential for physical injury caused to the digestive tract by extremely hard, sharp edges of jerky treats.
As long as you refrigerate and feed the treats within a few days of making them, or store them in an airtight container in your freezer before feeding, your homemade jerky treats will be a big improvement on the commercial products: chewier, more delicious, and far safer.