How to Protect your Pet from Toxins Found in Food and Treats

Did you know September is National Food Safety Education Month?

The world we and our pets live in is a toxic one, as we are continuously assaulted by toxins in our air, water, and even our foods. In striving to maintain a state of optimal health, it’s crucial that efforts are made to minimize exposure to toxins in day-to-day life.

As our pets develop, mature, and experience tissue degeneration at a faster pace than humans, there’s concern for the body’s ability to continuously clear toxins through the kidneys, liver, digestive tract, and other organ systems. Additionally, as the immune system weakens with age it’s less resistant to the damage caused by toxins and other bodily stressors (illness, trauma, etc.).

One of the simplest and seemingly most obvious ways we can protect our pets from suffering from toxic exposures is to make sure the food and treats they eat every day are as toxin-free as possible.

Owners in the United States and other countries have an unsettling level of confidence in their perceptions of pet food and treats being completely safe for our canine and feline companions. Just because the label on the bag of dry food (kibble) shows images of fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables doesn’t mean the food actually contains such ingredients in their natural form or at all.

Many pets suffer toxic exposures from their food and treats. Some get very sick while others die as a result of consuming food-based toxins.

Unfortunately, to change owner perceptions, it takes a pet food crisis to shake up people’s perceptions about the quality of ingredients that goes into their pet food and treats in order to make people actively seek to feed their pet’s better products.

In 2007, an international pet food crisis caused dogs and cats to suffer kidney failure and even death after eating foods containing China-sourced wheat gluten contaminated with melamine. This tragedy prompted owners to finally become more observant of the ingredients and nutritional value of commercial pet foods they had been so faithfully feeding to their companion animals. After all, if the meals your canine or feline companion consumes multiple times per day are built on the foundations of being cheaply produced and contain feed-grade (instead of human-grade) ingredients, is feeding such meals truly in your pet’s best interest?

My top tips for pet owners to reduce the toxins entering our pet’s bodies through food and treats are:

Only provide foods and treats made with human-grade ingredients

Feed-grade ingredients are lower quality than their human-grade counterparts and have higher allowable levels of a variety of toxins.

One prevalent toxin is mycotoxin, which is produced by molds that thrive when the appropriate environmental conditions of moisture, darkness, and warmth occur in a food bag or can.  Feed-grade grains are typically the source of mycotoxins.  Aflatoxin and vomitoxin are the most common mycotoxins which damage the liver, kidneys, digestive tract, and immune system and are carcinogenic (cancer-causing).

Additionally, according to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Compliance Policy CPG Sec. 675.100: FDA “does not object to the diversion to animal feed of human food adulterated with rodent, roach, or bird excreta.” Excreta includes feces and urine, which can contain a variety of harmful components like pathogenic (harmful) bacteria (Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli), parasites, viruses, or other harmful substances.  The health of other animals or humans in the house can also be affected by components of animal and insect excreta.

To spare our pets from potentially life-threatening toxicity, it’s best to feed human-grade instead of feed-grade nutrients.

Feed meals that are fresh, moist, and preservative free

Hydration plays in crucial role in promoting a pet’s best health.  70-80% of a dog or cat’s body mass is made of water and a 10% loss of total body fluids can cause serious illness.

Moist, human-grade diets like home-prepared or commercially-available rehydrated options (The Honest Kitchen, etc.) should be chosen over canned, feed-grade options containing moistening agents like carageenan, propylene glycol or chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) reports that “sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of degraded carrageenan in animals to regard it as posing a carcinogenic risk to humans” exists.  Your pet’s food can be sufficiently moist by simply adding water or low-sodium broths instead of moistening agents.

Propylene glycol is a chemical derivative of ethylene glycol (antifreeze) that’s touted to be non-toxic and non-absorbed by your dog, so it has a higher margin for safety than ethylene glycol.  It’s commonly found in faux-meat dog treats that resemble bacon or sausage and some dog foods having a moist or crumbly texture.  Propylene glycol was used to moisten canned feline foods, but cats suffer toxic effects (Heinz body anemia, etc.) from consuming it and the FDA banned its inclusion in feline products.  If you have a multi-pet household and your dog eats food or treats made with propylene glycol, the potential still exists that your cat could inadvertently become sickened by eating the canine products.  Propylene glycol has no health-yielding benefits and serves only to simulate moisture that naturally exists in whole foods.

BHA and BHT are chemical fat preservatives that can be found in pet foods and treats.

BHA is included in California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment list of Known Carcinogens and Reproductive Toxicants.  The National Institute of Health reports that “dietary exposure to BHA caused benign and malignant tumors of the forestomach (papilloma and squamous-cell carcinoma) in rats of both sexes and in male mice and hamsters (IARC 1986, Masui et al. 1986).”

BHT is also a known carcinogen and causes kidney and liver damage in rats and has been banned as a food preservative for humans in Australia, Japan, Romania, and Sweden.  Yet, it has not been banned for people or pets in the U.S.

Ethoxyquin is a chemical preservative which is illegal to use in human foods in the U.S., yet it’s still legally permitted to be added to our companion animals’ meals to prevent fat spoilage.  Human safety data reports Ethoxyquin to be harmful when swallowed or when direct contact with skin occurs.

Ethoxyquin can enter your pet’s food or treats as in protein “meals”, like fish meal.  If Ethoxyquin isn’t added during the production process, then the manufacturer does not have to disclose such information on the product label.  Therefore, you may not even know that you are feeding Ethoxyquin to your pet.

Choose pet food and treats containing either no preservatives or natural options like Vitamins C and E instead of chemical preservatives like BHA, BHT, or Ethoxyquin.  Additionally, don’t feed protein or grain “meals, by-products, or by-product meals” and instead focus on fresh, human-grade, whole-food sources.

Only Prepare Enough Food for One to Two Feedings

If owners have the mindset that our pet’s food can be left out all day in the bowl or sit in the bag or plastic bin for months at a time, then a disservice is being paid to our pet’s health.

When meals are left out to sit for hours to days before being consumed, then toxic bacteria and molds are given the opportunity to flourish.  Warmth, darkness, and moisture contribute to the growth of such organisms.

If you feed your pet a freshly prepared meal at each serving, then the entire portion you offer can be consumed and there’ll be no leftovers that can potentially harbor toxic microorganisms.   If you need to save on time you can always prepare morning and evening portions at once and keep the unused serving in the refrigerator until the feeding hour has arrived.

Always prioritize your pet’s health when selecting foods and treats.  Look for hidden toxins by reading food labels and avoid options that are not whole food or human-grade.  Never let your pet’s food go unconsumed to prevent spoilage-related health hazards.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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