Would you ever feed food to your dog or cat that wasn’t safe to eat?  Of course not!  Yet that’s exactly what many pet parents are doing. Despite the enormous array of choices in pet food today – raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated, canned, kibble, fresh cooked – the most popular option is still dry kibble. People often choose dry kibble instead of raw or fresh food because they believe it has less chance of harboring bacteria or dangerous pathogens.  However, the opposite is actually true.  98% of pet food recalls were for kibble and the majority were for brands from the biggest pet food companies – Mars, General Mills, Purina, Hills and Smuckers.  

Contamination by bacteria like salmonella or fungal mycotoxins, like aflatoxin are by far the most common reasons for a recall. While most people are familiar with salmonella, they don’t realize that it can be in dry dog food (and in chicken that you buy at the grocery store!) Mycotoxins are poisonous chemicals produced by certain types of molds and fungi that infect crops. There are many different kinds of mycotoxins, but the most dangerous type is aflatoxin. These molds grow on the surface of grains such as corn, wheat, rice, and barley.  The most common source of aflatoxin in every dog food recall has been corn.    

Mycotoxin contamination in pet food is serious.  Once eaten, the aflatoxin is absorbed into the bloodstream and makes its way to the liver, where it can cause liver failure and – if it is a high concentration - death.  But more commonly, pets may be affected by very small amounts of this deadly mycotoxin that accumulates in their system over a longer period of time and builds up as they continue to eat the same contaminated food every single day. Various symptoms can come on gradually and pets may suffer liver or kidney damage, cancer, or other health problems, and the cause is never correlated to their food.    

Mycotoxins make their way into pet food because mold spores are abundant; there are many factors that favor mold growth; and the mold can occur in every phase of the pet food production chain – living crops in the fields, during harvest, in storage, or in the processing.  This poisonous chemical can’t be killed or cooked away – even at very high temperatures. Furthermore, the toxins can be present even if there is no visible mold on the pet food.    

Symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning include:  

  • Lethary – (sluggishness, tiredness, lack of excitement)
  • Food Aversion - not wanting to eat
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the eyes, gums, or skin)
  • Diarrhea

The best way to prevent any sort of mycotoxin poisoning is to make sure that your pet doesn’t eat contaminated food.  But this can be a challenge because it is virtually undetectable in very small amounts and the FDA actually allows “safe levels” of mold to be present.  In fact, a recent study found that 75% of grain-based dry dog food samples tested were contaminated with mycotoxins.  Even if your kibble is grain free, mold spores can infect ingredients like lentils and peas. Pet food companies have stringent procedures in place to ensure that mycotoxins are not present, and high levels of aflatoxins are quite rare.  However, it is difficult to control all the factors that lead to mold growth, mistakes happen and accidents occur.  

To help ensure that your dog is not at risk for mycotoxin poisoning, follow these guidelines.  

  • Trust the company that makes your brand of food and ask them about their sourcing of ingredients and safety testing protocols.
  • Store pet food in an airtight container (preferably in the bag) in a cool, dry place that doesn’t have temperature fluctuations.
  • Once a bag of kibble is opened, use it up within 1- 3 months.
  • Add fresh meat and supplement with organs and whole foods to reduce toxin build-up.
  • Consider transitioning to a less processed fresh frozen or freeze-dried food.

Susan Thixton, a consumer advocate working to hold the pet food industry accountable to existing food safety regulations and founder of the Association for Truth in Pet Food, advises pet owners to, “Avoid pet foods and treats containing corn and wheat, which are most common to mycotoxin contamination.   Since we don’t know the testing methods each pet food manufacturer follows or what allowable levels they accept in ingredients, or the long-term effect of day-to-day minute mycotoxin consumption, avoiding these ingredients seems to be the best option.”     

Your dog or cat is completely dependent on YOU to ensure that the food they eat isn’t doing more harm than good. Don’t depend on pet food companies or government regulators to have your dog’s or cat’s best interests at heart.  The more you know about where your dog’s food is coming from and how it gets to his bowl, the better.