How to Keep Your Pet's Food Safe (and Recognize when It's Not)

By Dr. Marty Becker | vetstreet.com

How to Keep Your Pet's Food SafeFood is fragile. It's only as good as its ingredients, and even when it is made perfectly, it attracts the attention of other hungry beings, everything from toxic mold to bugs to rodents. And when you're talking about a complicated product with dozens of ingredients sourced from different parts of the globe and shipped and stored in all weather conditions … well, it's actually kind of amazing that we don't have more problems with food than we do.

Related: 10 Dangerous Human Foods for Pets

That's true of the food we eat, and it's true of the food we feed our pets too.

Trust the System

Widescale problems like the pet food recall of 2007, traced to adulterated ingredients from Chinese suppliers, are thankfully rare, but smaller problems linked to a particular food from a particular lot at a particular factory are not uncommon. And when we hear about these recalls, it's not a sign that the system is broken - it shows that it's working as it should be.

When a relatively small batch of food has a problem, the company finds it through quality testing and works with the government, veterinarians, retailers and the media to get news of a recall out to pet owners.

That's what happens when there's a known issue with a product, anyway. When a problem can't be found, however, the situation is more complicated. Such is the matter now with jerky treats imported from China. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there have been more than 2,000 illnesses and 35 deaths reported in pets fed the products, but they haven't been able to find any reasons why these animals became ill. While the FDA has not advised people to avoid the treats - they don't have the evidence to do so - they have reminded pet owners that treats aren't essential to a pet's health.

Related: 7 Foods to NEVER Feed Your Cat

Which throws the whole matter into the laps of veterinarians, because we are essential to a pet's health.

Protect Your Pets

Veterinarians take these matters very seriously and make a real effort to stay informed, and we pass any relevant information we have along to you. We also make sure to stay current on information from government agencies and manufacturers, as well as reporting problems to the FDA as we see them. But we do maintain a sense of perspective: We know that millions and millions of pets have lived long, healthy lives thanks to pet foods developed under rigorous scientific study. We know that every day far more pets benefit from nutritious, balanced and convenient pet foods than will ever be made sick by them.

And yes, we know none of that matters if it's your pet who gets sick, because your pet is our patient after all.

When it comes to pet food and treats, as in all matters concerning your pet's health, working in partnership with your veterinarian is critical not only to maintaining your pet's wellness but also to staying on top of any new concerns regarding these products. But as a pet owner, you have a role to play too.

Start by talking to your veterinarian about what food is best for your pet. As I've always said, it doesn't matter where you shop or what you can spend, your veterinarian will be able to recommend a product that is the best choice for your individual pet.

Once you choose a food or snack, there are some simple steps you can take to keep your pet safe and healthy.

  • Make note of where you bought the product and when, and keep the receipt until you buy a replacement supply. If you put food into a storage container, clip and save the part of the label with the contact information and lot number, or take a clear photo with your phone. Store food appropriately, in a cool, dry place and in a bug- and rodent-proof container with a secure lid.
  • Be alert for unusual symptoms in your pet, including lack of interest in food, and vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy or general "ain't doing right" behavior.
  • If your pet does exhibit unusual symptoms or behavior, contact your veterinarian promptly to get your pet the care he needs, and be prepared to let your veterinarian know the details of illness (how long have the symptoms been evident? How soon after eating? Are other pets in your home who are eating the same food also sick?). Follow your veterinarian's advice on changing foods, if necessary.
  • If you and your veterinarian decide that your pet's illness is food-related, work with your veterinarian to let the FDA and other appropriate agencies know about the problem. In the meantime, don't throw out any suspect food - it may be needed for investigation.

Because of my work as a veterinarian on the national stage, I know many experts in the pet food industry, and I am confident with the research and quality control that goes into the products you give your pets, no matter where you buy them. But I also know that no product - and certainly not an edible one - can be 100 percent safe, 100 percent of the time.

That's why we need to be aware of the risks, however small, and work together to provide good nutrition for pets while keeping a lookout for the rare instances when a product is not all it should be.

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