Jerky and jerky type treats have been in the pet food market for many years. These typically involve the flesh of various proteins and are in a strip or tender format. Since 2007, these treats have been associated with thousands of pet illnesses and deaths. Cases are still being reported currently and stories regularly circulate in media warning pet owners of the dangers associated with jerky.
Despite known concern regarding the safety of jerky treats, the popularity of jerky or “air-dried” meat as a pet food format has been gaining traction. This is noteworthy considering we are well over a decade into jerky related health issues and the root cause has never been identified. That said, with more jerky products, specifically jerky-type foods, being introduced into the pet market – what has been done to ensure these foods won’t increase risk factors or incidents of jerky-related illness in pets? More importantly, why would companies use jerky as the main source of protein for their foods?
Ongoing FDA Investigation
At this time, jerky products have not been linked to a specific toxin as a causative factor. Considering this, the subject of jerky safety certainly warrants more attention. Additionally, the FDA stated, “Jerky pet treats are not required as part of a complete and balanced diet for your pet.”
Ultimately, the FDA investigation regarding jerky-related illness has been centered around the occurrence of Fanconi syndrome (also known as Fanconi-like syndrome or FLS), which is a rare kidney disease that can be either genetic or acquired. Symptoms associated with the investigation include tremors, seizures, liver problems and skin-related issues. It also appears that companies making jerky and more concerning jerky-type foods have not completed testing to validate the nutritional adequacy of their product – or contributed research avoiding potential issues like FLS in pets.
Is China The Issue?
Originally, the health concerns related to chicken jerky were believed to have originated from China. Although concerns have since expanded to other jerky products inclusive of chicken, duck, sweet potato, dried fruit, rawhide as well as other related ingredients sourced from places in addition to China. That said, any pet food or jerky company citing US sourcing as reasoning that their product is safe, is misleading. This is especially true if said company is not fully transparent as to where their ingredients are coming from and has not fully validated their foods for nutritional adequacy and safety.
What is Fanconi Syndrome?
In humans, FLS is usually attributed to an ‘inborn error of metabolism’ that impairs the body from breaking down certain metabolic compounds such as cystine, fructose, galactose or glycogen – all of which can be constituents in various jerky products. FLS can also be acquired due to kidney damage from heavy metal toxicity, pharmaceutical compounds and other genetic diseases such as Lowe syndrome, Wilson disease and Dent disease. In canines, Fanconi syndrome is most notably associated with Basenji Dogs as a hereditary disease with highly variable symptoms and severity. Ultimately FLS results in excessive loss of metabolites within the urine resulting in significant metabolic dysfunction. Regardless of cause, symptoms can include excessive thirst, increased and excessive urine output, orthopedic pain, muscle weakness and increased risk of fractures.
Testing for FLS in humans and canines can involve testing urine to measure amino acids, glucose, magnesium, potassium, sodium and uric acid – among others. FLS can cause further symptoms complicating diagnosis. These include excessive dehydration, stunted growth, vitamin D related issues and others. Like humans, pets may present with weight loss and as if they are in late stage kidney disease.
Jerky Pet Food Problems
Earlier, we mentioned the recent popularity of pet foods that are essentially jerky (i.e. air-dried meat) -- this should raise a lot of concerns. Since the dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) debacle in 2018 I’ve written a lot about the importance of pet food companies being transparent and conducting studies to validate the safety and nutritional adequacy of the foods brought to market. This becomes even more critical in new food forms since dog foods as supposed to be their sole source of nutrition. By now, if you’re reading this article you know that there are certain things pet food companies can do to prevent things like DCM, formulation errors and contamination issues from causing a problem.
A glaring problem is that in the 13 years since the jerky investigation started, and the two-and-a-half years since the DCM investigation has begun it appears nearly every company in the industry has made zero progress toward nutritionally validating their foods (or identifying the real root causes). The industry has also not made any steps toward raising the bar for new foods and formulations coming to market. Even the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has a set of outdated and essentially meaningless standards when it comes to evaluating pet foods that provides a false sense of security. After all, did the WSAVA guidelines prevent the Hill’s Vitamin D toxicity issue which resulted in the largest pet food recall in history? Nope.
A Few Notes on Digestibility & Transparency
As a response to increased calls for transparency some companies have begun to release limited nutrition and digestibility data on their products. Problem being, if you don’t know what you are looking for companies can easily deceive you or not completely answer the question you are asking. A few recent examples involve the release of digestibility percentages that are not entirely complete.
When a pet food company provides digestibility data, they should be providing information on fat digestibility, protein digestibility, energy digestibility and total digestibility – 4 distinct percentages which tells you where the calories (energy) within the product are coming from and how efficiently the animal uses said product. Unfortunately, some companies will provide you only with one or two numbers which are usually in relation to fat and/or protein digestibility. This overestimates digestibility of the entire product since fat is the most digestible constituent within food (typically >90%). This provides incomplete information leaving the consumer unable to make an educated decision (protein can range from 60 to 90%).
Additionally, digestibility studies should be conducted on ALL their foods as individual tests. For example, conducting a single digestibility study where two foods are tested and the results are combined, is NOT acceptable nor is it the norm for the industry or published science. Each individual food will have their own unique digestibility values. For example, testing one food type (i.e. chicken) does not tell you how digestible similar products are with different protein sources (i.e. beef, turkey, venison or fish). Lastly, digestibility is nothing fancy when it comes to marketing. If companies use terms like “efficiency” you should question their data.
Another problem is that there are multiple ways to estimate digestibility of a pet food – and not all of them carry the same accuracy. First, in order to determine digestibility a company must determine total tract and crude protein digestibility in order to make digestibility claims. The gold standard of ethically measuring pet food digestibility is through collecting and analyzing the stool of a minimum of 6 animals fed that food over a minimum 5-day period. This is a non-invasive, inexpensive and simple process that many companies fail to do.
There are also additional ways to estimate the energy of a pet food that may appear to offer digestibility values, but indeed are different. Once such way would be to estimate ‘energy efficiency’. This is not transparent since this is not a recognized digestibility term nor does it provide the answer to the question you are asking. Couple this with the fact that AAFCO typical analysis are not available for these products we do not truly know the digestibility and nutritional adequacy of jerky foods on the market.
Jerky and jerky-like foods are clearly a potential source of health concerns for pets. Considering the large number of unknowns, research gaps, and lack of industry transparency it would appear risky to introduce a jerky food to market. In order for companies to do this safely and responsibly, it would be nice to see research funding or research into determining what the causes of FLS in pets are. The number of gaps in the field of animal nutrition are immense – and the jerky issue, DCM debacle and ever-growing list of health concerns that our pets face as a result are continuing to erode the reputation of the industry.
A novel concept would be to stop racing to innovate new products that are not validated and instead pause to validate the adequacy and safety of products already on the market and establish standards to market entry. Not until these things happen and the industry understands the value in conducting well designed nutritional research will the industry truly be able to innovate.
About the Author
Nicole is the founder & owner of award winning NorthPoint Pets & Company, in Connecticut. She is also the Founder & CEO of Undogmatic Inc. Her undergraduate and graduate education includes biology, chemistry, business and nutrition. She has worked in the pharmaceutical industry on multiple R&D projects and has had the privilege to learn from leading international figures in the human and pet health industry. She regularly lectures at national conferences, including federal, state, and municipal K9 events. Her current research involves identifying pathogenic risk factors and transmission among raw fed pets through a comprehensive worldwide survey.
1. Fanconi Syndrome in Basenji Dogs - WSAVA 2003 Congress - VIN. Accessed October 4, 2020. https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=8768&id=3850166