Life-threatening dog illness linked to imported treats

Published by Sun Media, Spring 2012

Several groups are warning pet-owners about a potential link between imported dog treats and a mysterious illness. Symptoms include decreased appetite, lethargy, vomiting, and possible kidney failure, which is often preceded by increased water consumption and/or increased urination.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) recently advised its members that there have been "several reported cases of dogs that have been showing signs similar to Fanconi syndrome. All dogs in the reported cases had been fed chicken jerky treats that were manufactured in China."

But new reports suggest the problem may not be limited to chicken jerky or to products imported from China, prompting some vets to recommend avoiding all imported pet treats.

Local dog owner speaks out

Regis Cornale's beloved dog, Annie, became lethargic and listless after eating 2-3 Canyon Creek Ranch Duck Tenders a day for a week and a half. According to the packaging, this was an appropriate portion for a dog of her size.

Annie's symptoms came on gradually, getting worse each day. She stopped greeting Cornale at the door when she came home from work. Her weight started to drop. She paced and seemed physically uncomfortable. Cornale tried not to worry, but knew something was definitely wrong when Annie refused to eat.

"That morning before work, I had to coax her to go outside. When she came in she didn't want to eat her breakfast, and she loves her dog food," said Cornale, who lives in Faraday Township but carpools to work in Peterborough through the week.

Cornale tears up as she recounts the next part of the story.

"I was leaving for the day, and thought, well she's got to eat something. So I gave her three of them."

When she returned home later that day, Cornale found Annie vomiting and trembling, and took her straight to the vet. She had no suspicion that the duck tenders were the problem, but upon hearing the sequence of events, her vet, Dr. Kim Facey, immediately became concerned.

Dr. Facey had been warned by the CVMA and other associations and colleagues about recent problems with imported pet treats, and had already seen other cases in her own clinic.

"Unfortunately I've seen a lot of dogs with the exact same symptoms," says Dr. Facey.

"Now when I see dogs with vomiting or diarrhea, it's the first thing out of my mouth - I ask, have you fed your dog any treats from China or Thailand?"

Vet suspicious of several products

Dr. Facey says there are several products on the market in Canada that pose potential health risks to dogs.

"Canyon Creek Ranch is one of them. Waggin' Train is another. There's a list of about 10. But I've given up on the list now because there are a number of them, all made by the same companies, but sold under different names," says Dr. Facey, repeating for emphasis, "The same products are repackaged and marketed under different names."

Dr. Facey urges pet owners to exercise extreme caution when choosing dog-treats, and says if you've already purchased imported jerky treats to dispose of them immediately, and to get to a vet as soon as possible if your dog shows signs of illness.

Some local pet-food store operators and vet technicians are also aware of the problem and are reluctant to stock imported pet-products. But it's hard to know which products are imported.

"Made in China" nowhere on packaging

When Dr. Facey asked Cornale if she had fed Annie any treats from China or Thailand, Cornale initially answered no. That's because the packaging, which Cornale had carefully read before buying the treats, doesn't suggest anywhere that the product is not made in Canada. It does say the product is quality checked in Canadian laboratories, all natural, low in fat, high in protein and distributed by Normerica Inc. in Port Credit Ontario, but it doesn't say anywhere that it's imported.

It doesn't have to.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), there is no legislation in Canada that requires pet treat distributors to reveal the country of manufacture on their packaging.

"I bought this stuff, reading the package, thinking it was good. They look like something I could eat - like something I'd take with me on a hike," says Cornale, pointing out that the treats are not cheap and are marketed as a high-end product. She says she is a careful shopper, and figures if the packaging fooled her, it could fool most Canadians.

Only after speaking to Dr. Facey, and then researching on-line did Cornale discover that Canyon Creek Ranch treats are not made in Canada and are currently under investigation in the U.S.

600 sick dogs trigger FDA investigation

"I never would have bought it if I had known" says Cornale, who has been wary of imported pet products since 2007 when melamine was detected in pet products from China after a lengthy investigation by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That investigation resulted in the recall of over a thousand pet food products and several indictments.

While Canyon Creek Ranch treats are produced by Nestle Purina in the U.S., in Canada they are distributed by Normerica Inc. which also manufactures its own brand of treats - Vitalife - in Thailand. A representative from Normerica was reluctant to answer questions, but did say they were aware of the FDA investigation and said the Canyon Creek Ranch products sold in Canada are not the same as those sold in the U.S. despite the same name and branding. Complaints about both products, nonetheless, are popping up on both sides of the border.

The FDA says it has received reports that over 600 dogs in the U.S. have become ill and/or died after eating jerky treats made in China. While the FDA has released multiple cautions about jerky treats from China, so far it has not issued a recall of any specific products.

Long process for recall

"It is important to understand that unless a contaminant is detected and we have evidence that a product is adulterated, we are limited in what regulatory actions we can take," explains the FDA in a statement. "The regulations don't allow for products to be removed based on complaints alone. This is an ongoing investigation and the FDA will notify the public if a recall is initiated. Currently, the FDA continues to urge pet owners to use caution with regard to chicken jerky products."

"There is nothing preventing a company from conducting a voluntary recall," adds the FDA. A petition urging Nestle Purina to do so can be found at

Although she doesn't often sign petitions, Cornale signed this one, and is encouraging others to follow suit. There is an area for comments on the petition site, with heartbreaking accounts of beloved pets becoming ill and sometimes dying after eating jerky treats.

So far, in Canada, there is little pressure for a recall.

The CFIA confirmed they have received complaints about Canyon Creek Ranch products, and are aware of the FDA investigation and consumer warnings. But Canadian legislation doesn't allow the agency to investigate pet treat products or issue recalls.

"The CFIA is not directly involved in pet food recalls," explains the CFIA's media relations dept. "The primary responsibility, decision and operation of a recall lies with either the producer of the product or in some rare cases the importer of the affected product."

"Should a case of contaminated pet food be confirmed, the manufacturer and/or importer is responsible for informing the CFIA. Based on these results, the agency may take action by canceling import permits for suspect products until such a time that any concerns are corrected," added the CFIA media relations dept.

"I feel the products should be recalled," says Dr. Facey. She is hopeful that a recently filed class action lawsuit against Purina Nestle in the U.S. will speed up the process.

She says even though it's not mandatory unless a causative agent is identified, "good companies will do a voluntary recall," because it could take a long time to find a causative agent.

"Until you know what to look for, it's very hard to find it," says Dr. Facey, admitting there is currently no hard proof that the treats are causing the illness.

"But the dogs with the symptoms who go off the treats recover. That's good proof there," she adds.

Annie is lucky to be one of those dogs.

Full recovery after diet change

Since she stopped eating Canyon Creek Ranch Duck Tenders, Annie has made a full recovery, and has gained back the weight she lost. Every day when Cornale gets home from work Annie meets her at the door with her tail wagging, and she is back to her normal happy self. Cornale says she won't buy any treats for Annie anymore unless it plainly states on the packaging that they are made in North America, and suggests other pet owners do the same. She is currently experimenting with home-made liver treats that Annie loves.

"I won't say directly these treats made my dog sick," says Cornale, immediately washing her hands after touching the package.

"But I will say my dog was perfectly healthy; I fed her these; she got sick. When I stopped feeding her these she got well."