This is a news story that keeps cropping up, but it’s still surprising how little awareness there is of the problem. The evidence is increasing that there is some component in some types of jerky treats that can make dogs very, very ill.

Starting in 2007, there have been many thousands of reported cases in the USA – so many, in fact, that the American FDA has been investigating. Many cases have also been reported in Canada and Australia, and there have now been 25 confirmed poisonings in the UK as well.

What treats are involved?

The vast majority of cases involve chicken jerky treats, but duck, beef and sweet potato variants have also been implicated. In addition, the problem seems to primarily be related to brands made in China (59% of UK cases). As a result, the UK’s Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS) have this week issued formal advice (see below).

What effects do they have on dogs?

Possible symptoms include vomiting and diarrhoea, and some dogs have displayed symptoms of liver or pancreatic disease. However, of the 25 UK cases, 22 involved the development of a disease called Fanconi Syndrome which causes severe kidney damage.

What is Fanconi Syndrome?

Fanconi Syndrome is a form of kidney damage where the kidney tubules are unable to reabsorb sugars, proteins and salts from the urine. This results in a wide range of symptoms, potentially including any or all of lethargy, vomiting, loss of appetite, increased thirst, increased urination, dehydration and weight loss. Alterations in urinating and drinking are the most common early signs, and symptoms often appear within hours or at most a few days of eating a treat.

There are, however, other causes of Fanconi Syndrome – it is usually genetic and is predominantly found in Basenjis. In addition, the symptoms are the same as those seen in other types of acute kidney injury, such as Leptospirosis infection, antifreeze poisoning, and some medications. It is therefore very important that your vet rules out other possible causes before you conclude that a jerky treat is responsible.

Can it be treated?

The data from the USA suggests that about 5 / 6 dogs whose owners report symptoms following eating jerky treats survived. Of the 22 UK Fanconi cases, 11 made a complete recovery, 9 were left with chronic kidney problems, and 2 were put to sleep.

The most effective treatment for acute kidney injuries of any cause is rapid diagnosis and supportive therapy – usually hospitalisation, high rate intravenous fluids (a drip), and very careful monitoring. However, if the damage is severe, the dog may be left with permanent low-grade kidney damage; this results in chronic kidney failure which is a lifelong health issue that must be managed (usually with specially formulated foods and sometimes medication).

It goes without saying that no longer feeding jerky treats is essential to both recovery and a good prognosis!

What is the underlying cause?

This is the problem – no-one really knows. In the US, the FDA (their Food and Drug Administration) has performed a wide range of tests, with no results so far. In the UK Pets at Home (who apparently supplied the jerky to 4 of the 22 cases) has launched a random testing programme, but has found no evidence of any known cause of kidney injury (including antibiotics, antifreeze-like chemicals, or bacterial toxins from Staphylococcus and Salmonella); they have also confirmed that all of their suppliers use meat that is cleared for human consumption.

Most of the affected animals were small breed dogs – it may be that smaller breeds are more susceptible, or, more likely, that they were eating more treats proportional to their body weight (one affected dog was getting 98% of its diet in the form of jerky!). However, others were getting them only as treats, and cases have been reported in the US following a single treat, so a simple dose-response relationship seems unlikely.

In the absence of conclusive information, the VPIS have recently launched a Jerky Treats Case Registry for vets to report suspected health problems associated with these treats. Additionally, the FDA will now accept UK samples for testing.

What should I do to keep my dog safe?

It seems likely that, once identified, the causative agent will prove to be a chemical which is relatively safe in humans, but that dogs are particularly susceptible to – however, until this agent is known, there is no way to say which types or brands of jerky are safe, and which are not.

As a result, VPIS has recommended that pet owners should avoid cheap brands of jerky treats, and said that dogs should NOT be given any that originate in China.

If you think your dog may be affected by Fanconi Syndrome or any other condition, whether or not they have eaten jerky treats, contact your vet for advice.

Do you want to know more?

There are a range of resources available on the internet – although we cannot vouch for the reliability of external sites, some of the more reputable include: