Salmonella, antibiotic residues and deadly melamine: the scary truth about dog treats, and how to choose safely for your pet.

In 2012 and 2013, Waggin’ Train chicken jerky strips tainted with antibiotic residues caused thousands of dogs to fall sick and nearly 400 to die. Waggin’ Train parent company Nestlé Purina, the second-largest pet food company in the world, blamed the problem on its Chinese suppliers and eventually recalled the treats. Image

Dangerous contaminants find their way into pet food and treats all too often. Just this spring, certain batches of Evanger’s and Against the Grain canned dog foods were found to contain traces of pentobarbital, a powerful drug used to euthanize animals. There is only one way pentobarbital gets into pet food, and that is when unscrupulous suppliers sell euthanized animals to pet food manufacturers.

8,500 animals, including at least 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs reportedly died after eating treats and pet food contaminated with melamine

The pet food supply chain is full of sketchy operators. Back in 2007, more than 150 brands of dog and cat food were recalled after the industrial chemical melamine and related compounds were found in dog treats, dry and canned dog and cat foods and even ferret feed. The chemical was allegedly added to wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate imported from China in order to boost its apparent protein content. As many as

So who is policing the suppliers to make sure the treats we feed our pets won’t harm them? The short answer is the same folks who watch out for people food—the Food and Drug Administration. The long answer is a little more complicated.

The Fox is Guarding the Henhouse

Federal law requires that foods sold in the United States, including animal foods, be safe, wholesome and properly labeled. But the FDA doesn’t have premarket approval authority for foods. “It’s the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure their products are safe,” says FDA spokesperson (and dog mom) Juli Putnam.

The FDA has the authority to take action when animal food is unsafe, but in most cases the agency only investigates pet foods after receiving complaints about them. So the first line of defense is pet owners who report adverse reactions to the FDA.

The FDA only investigates pet foods AFTER receiving complaints about them

If a food is found to be unsafe, the FDA usually issues a warning letter telling the company to clean up its act, and sometimes helps to facilitate a voluntary recall. For example, the manufacturers of both the Waggin’ Train treats and Evanger’s canned dog food recalled the products after receiving warning letters from the FDA. The companies styled these recalls as “voluntary,” but the fact is the feds made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. If they hadn’t pulled the products the FDA could have seized them.

Believe it or not, that state of affairs is an improvement. Until the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act went into effect in 2011, the FDA had no authority to force companies to recall animal or even human food (thankfully, there was an exception for infant formula). Image

In fact, the first mandatory food recall in FDA history was for dog treats.

In 2012, FDA and Colorado state inspectors found that the Denver factory where Kasel dog treats are produced was rife with Salmonella. Every finished pet treat collected during the inspection tested positive for the bacteria, and more than 10 different species of Salmonella were found, indicating multiple sources of contamination. FDA determined that every treat produced in the facility from mid-April to mid-September 2012 was potentially tainted with the bacteria, known to cause diarrhea, fever, chills, and abdominal pain in animals and people alike.

Kasel voluntarily recalled some of the treats, but refused to recall all of them. So the FDA forced them to pull the tainted treats from the market.

“The FDA takes the safety of animal food very seriously,” says Putnam. In fact, they’re on the trail of potentially unsafe dog treats right now. “We are currently investigating complaints for certain dog treat products; however, the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations,” Putnam says.

What Really Goes Into Dog Treats?

Bottom line, the FDA does regulate dog treats, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients are tested for contaminants before they’re made into the goodies we feed our pets. Since animals are less particular than, say, human kids (let’s face it, most dogs will eat anything) dog treats are often made from lower-grade meats and animal by-products, as well as grain fillers like oats, rice, corn and wheat. These ingredients can, and do, come from almost anywhere. Image

China gets a lot of heat because of the melamine and Waggin’ Train tragedies, but homegrown ingredients can also be problematic. The tainted meat used in Evanger’s dog food likely came from animals euthanized on farms near the company’s Illinois production facility. The FDA even has a designation for the meat from animals too weak or sick to walk to the slaughterhouse, 4D (dead, dying, diseased, disabled). Almost all of them end up as animal feed. These are traditional food animals such as cattle, hogs, poultry or even horses, but not pets. Thankfully, those alarming rumors of euthanized dogs and cats being ground up and added to pet food appear to be just that—rumors, and nothing more.

The prevalence of low-cost, low-quality ingredients in dog treats—not to mention the history of sickness and death from tainted treats—means that we should be especially vigilant. Here’s how to be as certain as possible that the treats you give your dog are wholesome and safe.

How to Choose Wholesome Dog Treats Image

Less is More. As a rule of thumb, the shorter the list of ingredients, the healthier the treat. By the same token, whole, unprocessed ingredients are generally superior to processed stuff. It’s just like human food. You may only recognize five of the 37 ingredients in Twinkies, but you eat them anyway because, well, they’re Twinkies. Your dog has worse self-control than you do, but he’s not the one choosing what to buy. You are. Get him something simple and wholesome.

Research the Company. When a company is truly trying to source and provide quality ingredients for our pets, they will announce it on their website and packaging, says Tonya Wilhelm, a top dog trainer who blogs at Raising your Pets Naturally. “Remember, ‘made in the USA’ does not always mean the ingredients came from the USA. If a company does not list their ingredients’ country of origin, a consumer can contact the company and inquire.”

Beware of Meat Byproducts. A lot of pet foods are made from parts of animals that people don’t eat. The lean cuts of meat and poultry go to the butcher aisle in the supermarket. What’s left—bones, organs, blood, chicken beaks, and the like—goes into pet food. According to PetMD, the mix also can legally include such things as restaurant grease, out-of-date supermarket meat, and 4D livestock animals. All of it is ground up and rendered—boiled down—into feedstocks that show up on pet food labels as “fat,” “meal” or “by-product” of whatever type of animal went into the vat, such as “chicken meal.”

Avoid Anonymous ‘Meat Meal.’ Never buy any product made with an anonymous animal ingredient. If you see “animal meal” on the ingredient list, run do not walk, out of the store. If the type of animal used in a “meal” or “byproduct” feedstock is not specified on the label, it’s more than likely a mix of different animals—a bottom-of-the-barrel hodgepodge that’s almost impossible to control for quality or contaminants. Run.

Don’t Buy the Hype. Pet foods and treats are often labeled with high-powered adjectives such as “gourmet,” “premium,” “super premium,” or “ultra premium.” Those words sound great but mean absolutely nothing. Nobody—not the FDA, not the Association of American Feed Control Officials, not the Commerce Department—requires pet food companies to meet any type of standard to claim their product is “premium” or otherwise exceptional.

Consider Plain Meat or Veggies. Your dog doesn’t care whether a treat is marketed for dogs. “It is more about the act of receiving than about any sort of flavor,” says Andrea Barbosa, a professional groomer and founder of Norah by Earth. “Consider small, dog-friendly vegetables in place of the often high-calorie prepackaged snacks.”

Practice Moderation. Dog treats are just that—treats. They are not a substitute for regular dog food, so moderation is best no matter how convincing your good boy’s sad eyes are. Dr. Joseph Bartges, Professor of Veterinary Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Georgia, recommends no more than 5 percent of your dog’s calorie intake should come from treats.

Listen to Your Dog. Dogs are naturally happy and energetic. If your pup isn’t her frisky self, diet—food or treats—could be the reason. “If pet owners choose to feed dog chews, they should watch their pets closely for signs of decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, increased water consumption and/or increased urination,” Putnam says. Remember that the FDA doesn’t pretest pet foods. The agency acts on tips from pet owners, so if your dog has an adverse reaction to treat it’s up to you to report it through FDA’s Safety Reporting Portal. Make sure to include the lot number. “FDA subject matter experts review every consumer complaint that is submitted to the agency,” Putnam says.

Trust but Verify. Bartges recommends dog-lovers check the FDA and American Veterinary Medical Association websites to keep updated on potential issues and recalls not only for treats, but also foods and drugs. The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has published consumer updates about bones, jerky pet treats, and other animal and veterinary issues.

For more in-depth research on finding the right food for your pet, check out our reviews!