When small-animal veterinarians have questions or problems, they often turn to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, TVMDL, due to the agency’s expertise, testing ability and advanced knowledge of many issues affecting companion animals.

Adorable puppy eating pet food
Pet owners only want the best in their pet food. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Annually, nearly a quarter of TVMDL’s testing services are dedicated to companion animals. And that includes tests surrounding pet food recalls, of which there were 10 in 2020 alone.

For instance, in late 2020, Cat Barr, Ph.D., TVMDL toxicologist, had already been researching the issue for several days before an aflatoxin contamination resulted in a pet food recall in Texas. A colleague at the University of Missouri Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory reached out to Barr on Dec. 29 to see if TVMDL had seen any cases of aflatoxicosis.

Barr discovered TVMDL pathologists and clinical pathologists had already performed several postmortem examinations in December that fit the lesions associated with aflatoxicosis.

“We contacted those veterinarians and directed them to the recall website,” she said. “We had two pet food samples with 300-400 parts per billion aflatoxin, confirmed and measured by the Office of the Texas State Chemist, OTSC. We’ve assayed a total of eight pet food samples for aflatoxin during this period.”

In this case, Barr said, the pet food company made a voluntary recall, which means the manufacturer itself coordinated the response. TVMDL would have been more actively involved in testing if the recall had been involuntary, or required by the Food and Drug Administration, FDA.

Serving the companion animal clientele

Early in her career at TVMDL, Barr said TVMDL participated in a huge recall that was not voluntary for the manufacturer. TVMDL tested pet food samples for aflatoxin, performed testing to evaluate the health of live pets, and evaluated samples from deceased animals. This was a case that originated within Texas and the effects were regional, so the lab was very involved.

Another involuntary recall, in 2007, was issued for melamine-cyanuric acid contaminated products out of China. TVMDL was a part of the nationally coordinated effort to identify the contaminating compounds and develop a chemical testing method for melamine and cyanuric acid in pet foods and animal urine. TVMDL pathologists communicated with other veterinary diagnostic laboratories across North America to develop a case definition, or criteria to determine if illness is associated with an outbreak, for melamine/cyanuric acid intoxication.

Last year, TVMDL became a part of the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network. Vet-LIRN is a North American network of diagnostic and public health laboratories dedicated to detecting the causes of food and drug adverse events. Members like TVMDL serve a unique purpose in their ability to diagnose feed and drug adverse events by testing pet animal diagnostic samples, outside the limitations of food testing laboratories.

FDA has a safety portal for consumers and veterinarians to report a complaint to FDA so the information is compiled centrally and patterns of similar cases can be more readily recognized by Vet-LIRN. For an explanation of the information and level of detail that is helpful to include in a complaint to the FDA, see How to Report a Pet Food Complaint.

“We see samples from companion animals daily,” Barr said. “We talk with vets daily and keep these things in mind if we start seeing patterns. This allows similarities between case findings at labs across the country to be picked up and acted upon early.”

Pet food recalls

Pet food recalls in 2020 resulted from fatal levels of aflatoxin or contamination with salmonella or E. coli O157. A continually updated list can be found on the OTSC website. Pet owners whose pets have been eating a recalled product should contact their veterinarians, especially if their pets show signs of illness.

Pet food recalls affect companion animals every year. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Barr said TVMDL’s analytical chemistry section receives submissions and inquiries from veterinarians who need testing on a client’s behalf, or from other toxicologists and laboratories.

“We mostly serve the veterinarians who send us samples from their clients,” she said. “We in toxicology also work with producers in some instances, but we rely on the veterinarians who can examine the animals to determine what diagnostic actions need to be taken.”

TVMDL always encourages veterinarian involvement, as the veterinarians can best assess the pet’s health, determine diagnostic strategies and assist pet owners with treatment options. TVMDL strictly performs diagnostic testing.

Typically, Barr said, TVMDL performs testing to determine whether the food is positive for a specific contaminant and reports the amount of contaminant present. For example, aflatoxin contamination is a frequent cause of pet food recalls. For aflatoxin, the FDA has set a safe limit at 20 parts per billion in pet food. Dogs can show signs of aflatoxicosis after ingesting food with as little as 60 parts per billion. Some recalled pet food samples have been found with 300-500 parts per billion of aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin contamination as a cause for pet food recalls can happen when testing protocols are not followed throughout the process by a company. Aflatoxin is produced by fungi in corn, among other crops, and the degree of contamination varies from year to year due to weather patterns during the growing season.

Pet food manufacturers generally test for the toxin in their incoming loads of corn, but mold growth and toxin production can be very localized in stored corn, Barr said. An area of contamination can be missed even when using a prescribed pattern of sampling. So, many companies post-test their final products to ensure nothing is going out with aflatoxin contamination. Those companies that don’t post-test can run into problems that merit a recall.

Knowing your pet helps detect early signs of problems

Regardless of the type of contamination, Barr said there are common signs that indicate a problem with your pet’s food, such as the pet’s reluctance to eat, vomiting or diarrhea, often associated with feeding from a new container.

“Knowing your animal and how they normally behave and watching for signs of illness or changes in behavior will help,” she said. “Take them to your own veterinarian for a diagnostic exam first. Also, if there is a concern it might be food related, you might want to keep track of the lot and brand of food they get.”

The FDA urges veterinarians treating aflatoxin poisoning to ask their clients for a diet history. Should diagnostic testing be required, TVMDL offers expertise and assays to detect aflatoxins.

Learn more about TVMDL’s test offerings by visiting tvmdl.tamu.edu.

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