Dangerous Dog Treats and How They Could Make Your Dog Sick

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

There is a huge market out there for dog treats, with UK sales worth £462 million pounds in 2018. No wonder that every supermarket, value shop and pet store has shelves full of tempting 'extras' for our dogs. They are packaged to be attractive to pet owners, given cute or tasty names and sometimes promoted as having health benefits (good for teeth, grain-free, great for digestion, etc).

Yet, behind the glossy packages with pictures of grinning, happy dogs lurks a potential health minefield—additives that could make our dogs sick, processing methods that could harm them or ingredients that are not as digestible or safe as manufacturers claim.

Rawhide: A Dangerous Favourite

Rawhide is one of the most popular dog treats on the market, being cheap to buy and attractive to most dogs. It comes in many forms from full 'sheets' of rawhide that can be flat or shaped into bones, balls or rings, to ground-up rawhide that is pressed together to form shapes such as stars, hearts or flat bones.

Rawhide is advertised as being a long-lasting treat that encourages healthy chewing (saving the furniture) and keeping teeth clean by reducing tartar build-up. No wonder that it is a go-to product for many pet owners.

The big danger with rawhide is also its main selling point: it is a tough, chewy product, designed to last ages because it is difficult to break into small bits. This means that if a dog swallows a large piece it may cause an internal blockage.

A 2014 study looked at the digestibility of various types of dog treats. Using test tubes as artificial stomachs and intestines, the study aimed to explore how treats progressed through a dog's digestive system. The first stage was to put them in the 'stomach' and see how well they were digested before moving to the 'intestines'. What was noticed in these tests was that most rawhide was barely digested before leaving the stomach. How well it was processed by the body depended on the type of rawhide the treat was made from (whether it was from beef or pig skin, and which part of the animal was used to make it). However, the majority of rawhide bones tested passed into the gut virtually undigested.

The researchers concluded that rawhide chews "should be discouraged for dogs that tend to consume large pieces of food without much [chewing] prior to swallowing, as it could pose a risk for gastric blockage." While blockages are the biggest concern with rawhide, there are other dangers to take into consideration when buying these types of chew.

Rawhide has to be heavily processed before being put on sale. First, the hide of an animal (usually from cattle) has to be split, the top layer going to the leather trade, while the second layer (the hypodermic interstitial tissue layer) is sent to be processed into rawhide. This second layer contains high levels of collagen and has little nutritional value.

To turn the skin into rawhide it first has to be washed with degreasers and detergents, then cleaned, before being sterilised and bleached in hydrogen peroxide. To make it more appealing, artificial colours and flavours are then added. Products from some countries may also contain preservatives to ensure the rawhide does not rot as it is transported.

The whole process sees your dog's 'healthy' treat being bathed in various chemicals, some highly toxic, these might include:

  1. Sodium sulphide and lime helps remove hair and fat. Ingestion of Sodium sulphide can result in burns to the mouth and throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Though this would require significant amounts to be consumed.
  2. Hydrogen peroxide or bleach to whiten the rawhide. Hydrogen peroxide can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
  3. Titanium oxide (titanium dioxide) is potentially used to whiten the rawhide further. In animal studies, Titanium dioxide was proven to have a carcinogenic effect (causes cancer).
  4. Formaldehyde, mercury, lead and arsenic have been found when testing rawhide products (in the US).
  5. Glue is often used to manufacture rawhides. The final shapes have to be glued together and some of these glues are toxic.

Products from China are considered the worst for containing dangerous chemicals that could lead to health complications, however, even in products made in the US and the UK chemical processes are required to transform the rawhide into a chew. It is therefore easy to see how the dangers of rawhide outweigh its limited benefits.

Made in China: A Warning Sign

Since 2007, the FDA, (the US Food and Drug Administration) has received thousands of reports of pets becoming ill as a result of eating jerky dog treats made in China. In the majority of cases, the animals have presented with Fanconi Syndrome (sometimes referred to as Fanconi-Like Syndrome or FLS) which is normally considered a rare, hereditary condition that affects the kidneys.

The kidneys work as filters for the body, removing waste matter, while retaining nutrients vital to the functioning of the animal. Waste matter ends up leaving the body via the urine. In dogs with FLS, the kidneys stop functioning correctly and important nutrients that should remain in the body are instead lost through the urine when a dog pees. Dogs with FLS will drink and pee more than normal, may be lethargic and also uninterested in food. Fortunately, many will improve with veterinary treatment and removing China-made jerky from their diet.

So far, the FDA has not been able to find the reason why these jerky treats have been causing sickness, though they have carried out extensive testing of these products for a variety of toxic substances. While there is a clear link between dogs eating these treats and developing FLS, the question remains, why?

In 2013, a number of jerky products produced for a well-known brand were removed from the market in the US due to tests revealing they contained residual traces of antibiotics. These treats have subsequently been reformulated and returned to the market in 2014. However, the presence of antibiotics is not thought to trigger FLS.

During 2014, the FDA tested further jerky treats and discovered that several contained amantadine, a drug used in Parkinson's disease to ease the tremors and involuntary movements associated with the condition. It has also been used in the past as an antiviral for certain types of flu. It should not be present in pet treats, yet the known side-effects of amantadine do not include kidney problems, therefore this is not the trigger of FLS.

While there is still uncertainty about why jerky treats from China could be causing FLS, what is obvious from the FDA's testing is that these treats are liable to contain additives that should not be there and this raises questions about what else they might contain that is potentially illegal and dangerous to dog health.

The simple answer would seem to avoid treats made in China, but is it that easy? Manufacturers sometimes import meat from China and then produce their products in the UK and US, thus they are labelled as being made in the country they are being sold in. The best solution is to opt for homemade jerky, it is not hard to do and you will know exactly what your dog is consuming.

Treats With Pretty Colours Can Be Pretty Dangerous

To make dog treats look appealing they are often dyed bright, vivid colours using artificial additives. Evidence suggests that these additives could be harmful to pets.

Labelled on packaging in the UK as 'EC permitted additives', while in the US companies will specify the exact artificial colour used, these additions can include:

  • E102 or Tartrazine (known in the US as Yellow#5)
  • E110 or Sunset Yellow (known in the US as Yellow#6)
  • E132 Indigotine (known in the US as Blue#2)
  • E129 Allura Red (known in the US as Red#40)

Research by the UK's Food Standards Agency found that the colours E102, E110 and E129 were linked to mood swings, hyperactivity and could cause ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in children. They called for the colours to be banned in 2008, but currently, they are still a legal additive in both human and animal food, though in products aimed at the human market packaging must carry a warning about potential side effects. Also in 2008, vets commented that 'bad' behaviour in dogs could be linked to food and treats containing artificial colours, just as in children.

While these behaviour changes usually disappear when artificially coloured food or treats are no longer given to a pet, more worrying is that E129 (Red#40) has been linked to cancer in animals and is now banned in several European countries (but not the UK or the US). UK veterinarian Joe Inglis, who spearheads the Campaign for Real Pet Food, commented in 2008:

Over the 12 years I've been a practising vet, I have seen a substantial rise in cases of problems caused by poor diet, including allergies and intolerances, and behavioural issues linked to artificial additives in food.

While dog treat manufacturers are slowly removing artificial colours from their products, there are still many available on the market and they are being fed to pets by owners unaware of the potential side effects. As pretty as these treats look, they are best avoided.

The Link Between Dog Treats and Cancer

In recent years, a controversy has arisen concerning the food additive E320 or Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA). BHA is a synthetic antioxidant that is often used as a food preservative. It is not always easy to know if a dog treat contains BHA; though some (such as Milk-Bones) specify it on the ingredients list, other packaging simply states that a product contains antioxidants and preservatives, without stating whether that includes BHA (though it is very likely it does).

Various experiments over the years have shown that in large doses BHA causes cancer. Japan has banned its use in human food, the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the state of California have listed BHA as a carcinogenic, yet it is still a legal food additive in the UK and US.

Studies on rats, mice and hamsters showed a link between consumption of BHA at high levels and stomach cancer. While other studies on fish linked it with liver cancer. However, there is still uncertainty about how dangerous it is in lower levels and so it has not been banned.

Many popular brands of dog treat contain BHA to lengthen the product's shelf-life, making avoiding it tricky. Yet with the rise in cancer in dogs, owners are growing more aware of potential carcinogenics. To stay clear of BHA you have to cut out any product that contains artificial preservatives—these will usually be biscuits and processed chew bars.

Buying natural treats, like rabbit ears, dried fish, or products made by companies that do not use artificial preservatives will help you keep BHA out of your dog's life, and when in doubt, ask the product manufacturer for a full ingredients list for their treats and if they can't provide one, then that is a product to avoid!

Sickly Sweet Treats

For many years, dog treat makers would improve the appeal of their product by adding sugar. Often this was done to compensate for the low quality of the other ingredients in the treat. With growing concerns about the amount of sugar in pet foods, manufacturers had to make a change.

Rather than improve the ingredients going into a treat, so that sugar was no longer required to make it taste good to dogs, they simply switched to using an artificial sweetener—sorbitol. And, as an added bonus, sweeteners are cheaper than sugar, so the manufacturers could make more profit from their product. Sugar should not be a part of a dog's diet and replacing it with sorbitol to make it seem as if a product is sugar-free, simply makes the problem worse.

Sorbitol (E420) is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in small quantities in fruit, but for commercial purposes, it is created through a series of chemical processes. While the source material for these processes is natural (potato starch or corn syrup are common starting points) the way sorbitol is manufactured is far from it. One form of manufacture requires the use of nickel or the rare metal ruthenium as a catalyst. Nickel, when ingested, can cause stomach ache, and issues with the red blood cells and kidneys, while ruthenium is considered highly toxic and a carcinogenic. Though the nickel and ruthenium is filtered out of the sorbitol slurry, before it is purified, there remains that nagging concern that such toxic metals have been used in its creation.

Even without these worries, sorbitol has a range of well-known side-effects. Medical sorbitol has been used as a diuretic (makes you urinate more) and as a laxative. Consuming too much can result in stomach cramps, diarrhea and weight loss (if the source of the stomach troubles is not recognised). For dogs with sensitive stomachs, sorbitol could easily trigger further problems.

Another, more controversial concern, is the impact sorbitol has on appetite and obesity. Various studies have linked artificial sweeteners to weight gain (as well as increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease in humans). One theory why sweeteners cause obesity, rather than prevent it, is because they are empty calories and cause the body to become hungrier. In dogs it has been suggested that they make food taste sweeter and more appealing, so they crave more and thus eat more, while avoiding healthier foods that do not contain sorbitol.

However, the biggest concern with sorbitol remains its potential for causing stomach problems and, as a result, severe weight loss The short answer is that dogs do not require sugar in their diets, and therefore do not require a sugar-replacement. If a product needs sorbitol to make it palatable, then it is clearly not of good quality to begin with.

Gluten and Getting to the Grain of the Issue

When it comes to grain in our dog food (be it wheat, corn or rice) there is a great deal of debate about whether it has benefits or whether it should be completely removed. Pet food manufacturers have been using grain in kibble, treats and some wet foods, for many years to help bulk out the diet, keep it low fat and, in the case of baked products, to bind the item together. To make a hard biscuit, flour of some sort is an essential ingredient.

With the rising number of dogs with allergies, grain, or more specifically gluten, has been blamed as a major trigger. Gluten is found in certain grains including wheat, rye and oats. An intolerance to gluten is blamed by many people for stomach troubles and feeling generally unwell. In dogs, it seems to contribute to itchy skin, ear infections and possibly flatulence.

A gluten-free diet is not the same as a grain-free diet since rice and corn are both grains but do not contain gluten and are safe to be consumed even by those suffering from coeliac disease, a serious auto-immune condition worsened by the consumption of gluten. So, if you think your dog may be intolerant to gluten, that does not automatically mean they have to go grain-free.

Equally, going grain-free might not be as healthy as it seems. As of 2019, there have been mounting concerns that certain grain-free dog foods could be responsible for causing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) a serious and potentially deadly heart disease. The FDA is investigating the problem, with concerns that the use of peas, lentils, pulses and potato in grain-free products could be putting pets at risk of developing this condition.

While the investigation is still in an early stage, and it is not entirely clear why certain foods could cause DCM, some vets are telling owners to ditch grain-free. New York veterinarian Lisa Lippman has concerns about grain-free products:

It’s extremely, extremely rare for dogs to have a grain sensitivity. Even though I think [DCM] uncommon and unlikely to happen to your dog, it’s so unnecessary to be feeding grain-free. DCM is just not a disease you want to mess with, and as a pet parent, to think that you could have caused it, even inadvertently, is really devastating.

Veterinary medicine professor Christopher Lea, director of the Auburn University Veterinary Clinic, is of a similar opinion: “I don’t feed grain-free diets to my pets, and I’d certainly be cautious after what I’ve read and what I’ve seen from our cardiologist.”

So where does that leave us? The simple answer is just because a dog treat is labelled 'grain-free' does not make it a healthier alternative. If your dog has never had an issue eating treats containing grain, then there is no reason to change. If your dog does show sensitivities, try switching to gluten-free treats, instead of grain-free. These could include rice bones or treats containing corn.

Beware of Bones

Walk into any pet shop and next to rawhide is one of the most common treats you will find—bones: flavoured bones, filled bones, roasted bones. They are a cheap, long-lasting treat that keeps teeth clean, what is not to love?

First, let's clarify what we mean by bone treats. These are the sort you buy in a pet shop that have been cooked (usually dried) and may have added flavours or be stuffed with a filling. They might look a deep brown colour and feel greasy, or they might be bleached white and appear dry. These bones have been processed and are not the same as raw bones bought straight from a butcher or from a raw food pet shop.

Raw bones are a great way of satisfying your dog's chewing requirements and will aid in teeth cleaning. Dog's will crunch on smaller bones, breaking them down before consuming, but bigger bones, such as raw knuckle bones, will usually just be chewed on. Dogs should always be supervised when eating bones, and care taken to ensure they don't swallow large lumps. Fortunately, the stomach is very good at dealing with raw bones, and though it does not break them down, it will round off any sharp edges so they pass through the gut safely.

Of course, there is a slight risk of your dog choking or developing a blockage if they fail to chew even a raw bone. This leads us back to bone treats, or rather processed bones. There are lots of reasons why processed bones can be hazardous to dogs. Part of the problem is that these bones have been dried, making them very hard, but also brittle at the edges. Raw bones are soft, easy for a dog to break down with chewing and are easier to digest, completely different to processed bones.

Dog owners know that feeding cooked bones from the dinner table could lead to problems, as the bones are more likely to splinter when crunched producing nasty sharp shards. Unfortunately, many do not realise the same risks apply to shop-bought treat bones.

Treat bones can cut the mouth or tongue if they splinter or develop rough edges, they also wear down the teeth because they are so hard. Instead of improving your dog's dentistry, you could be making it worse. Dogs may even break teeth if they chew too hard on treat bones.

Another risk comes from filled bones, these are attractive to consumers because they are clean and don't smell. They are usually filled with something tasty the dogs love to lick out. However, as this filling is consumed, the bone becomes hollow and dogs will tend to slip their upper or lower jaw into the middle as they chew on the edges. Dogs may then get the bone stuck around their jaw. This can result in a trip to the vet to cut the bone free.

The most worrying risk from treat bones is the danger of them causing a blockage inside the dog. Naturally, this depends on if the dog likes to consume pieces of the bone, but for dogs that do, large pieces can be swallowed and end up stuck. Some dogs are lucky and emergency surgery will remove the offending bone, others cannot be saved.

One final concern is that many of these bones are treated with artificial preservatives, colours and flavourings which, as mentioned above, could have a negative effect on a dog's health. So, if you are going to feed bones, feed raw ones and supervise your dog's consumption of them.

© 2019 Sophie Jackson

Toxic Treats from China Killing US Dogs, Say Pet Owners

FDA fields hundreds of complaints of illness, death allegedly tied to treats.

Investigation: Inside Egg 'Factory Farm'

March 16, 2012 — -- When Kevin and Candace Thaxton's 10-year-old pug Chansey got sick late last year, the couple assumed at first it was simply old age. The small dog started showing symptoms of kidney failure -- drinking water excessively and urinating in the house. By the time the Thaxtons got her to a veterinarian, Chansey's kidneys had shut down and she was in extreme pain. She died two days later.

"It was so hard. It was just devastating," Kevin Thaxton told ABC News.

But the Thaxtons would go through the ordeal again just weeks later -- leading them to a new theory behind Chansey's death -- when their new Pekingese-mix puppy Penny exhibited the same symptoms, finally resulting in kidney failure. When Candace Thaxton stumbled on a Food and Drug Administration warning that there'd been an increase in complaints about chicken jerky dog treats made in China, she says she knew immediately what had happened to her beloved dogs.

"I grabbed the bag of treats and turned it over," Candace said. "At first I saw it said 'Manufactured in South Carolina' so I thought I was safe. Then I looked harder and it said 'Made in China' and I just said 'Oh no.' "

In just the past four months, the Food and Drug Administration has fielded over 530 complaints from pet owners claiming their dogs suffered illness or death after eating jerky treats made in China, officials tell ABC News. The FDA has issued three separate warnings about Chinese jerky treats in the past four years -- advising owners who give their pets the snacks to watch the dogs closely for signs of illness. But since the agency says it has yet to find a "definitive cause" for the mystery ailments, it hasn't blamed Chinese treats for the illnesses, it hasn't named any of the well-known American firms like Purina that sell them, and it hasn't recalled any of the products. Dog owners and legislators are now demanding action.

News of the possible risk to dogs comes at a time when the safety of imported food is being heavily scrutinized. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control reported that foods imported from other countries are to blame for dozens of recent foodborne disease outbreaks. The CDC looked at outbreaks from 2005 to 2010 and concluded that 39 outbreaks and over 2,300 illnesses came from food imported into the U.S. Nearly 45 percent of the foods that caused the outbreaks came from Asia.

The FDA says it is actively investigating reports of illness and death and has been conducting tests on samples of the treats. An FDA spokesperson said the samples came from around the country but would not cite specific sources that provided the samples.

The FDA issued its first warning about chicken jerky treats from China in 2007, in response to the first wave of consumer complaints, and then issued a second in 2008. When the FDA issued a third warning in late 2011, based on another increase in complaints that year, it asked consumers to report any other purported incidents directly to the agency. Since that update, hundreds of dog owners have come forward to share their concerns. The Thaxtons, who say their dog Penny recovered after they stopped feeding her the treats, are now part of an angry population of pet owners who say the FDA hasn't done enough to protect their four-legged family members in the years it has known about the problem.

Blue Wilderness Wild Bones Grain-Free Dental Chews

Next up we have Blue Wilderness Wild Bones Grain-Free Dental Chews. They are a relatively new treat on the market but are steadily growing in popularity. The current customer base of the treats has left a number of independent reviews of the product online that you can read by clicking here if you wish.

The image below shows the full nutritional breakdown Blue Wilderness Wild Bones Grain-Free Dental Chews and as you can see, they are only three percent fat making them ideal for a dog with pancreatitis.

Rawhide Ingredients

In recent years, many dog owners have become concerned about the ingredients in their dogs’ food and treats. You may have even noticed that many rawhide chew manufacturers are promoting their “natural, digestible chews.” Does that mean that rawhide chews are not all one and the same? That’s exactly what it means. Rawhide chews are made from dried animal skins, which seems natural enough. What’s important to consider, however, is where these rawhide chews are made. Rawhides made in the United States are few and far between, and much pricier than your average chew, but the benefits are well worth the cost.

Rawhide chews are made from the leather industry’s leftovers. Most hides are taken directly from the kill floors at slaughterhouses and placed into high-salt brines, which helps slow their decay. Most rawhide chews are manufactured in China, and it can take weeks to months before these brined hides actually make it to the tanneries for their final manufacture. Once the hide arrives at a tannery, it is soaked and treated with lime to help separate the fat from the skin, the hair is removed by chemical and physical efforts, and the hide is rinsed again. Unfortunately, the salt brines cannot prevent decay, no matter how long they delay it. It is best to fully rinse a rawhide in water prior to giving it to your dog.

Owners: Dog treats killed our pets

By Greg Hunter and Pia Malbran


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KANSAS CITY, Missouri (CNN) -- At least 13 dogs have died after being fed the top-selling pet treat in the country, owners and veterinarians have told CNN.

The problem comes because the treats, called Greenies, become lodged in a dog's esophagus or intestine and then some veterinarians say they don't break down.

"I know they are marketed in saying that they do digest. Certainly the ones that we've taken out, esophageal or intestinal, that have been in for days are still very hard," Brendan McKiernan, a board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist from Denver, Colorado, told CNN. (Watch a vet retrieve a two-day old, undigested Greenie from a dog -- 7:40)

Greenies recommends owners check that the treats are chewed and Joe Roetheli - who launched the brand as a treat that can freshen a dog's breath and clean its teeth - said it was important to pick the correct chew for a particular dog. There are 7 different sizes to choose from depending on the size of the dog.

But most of the dog owners CNN talked to say they did follow package instructions and they still had a problem.

Mike Eastwood and his wife, Jenny Reiff, recently filed a $5 million lawsuit in New York, blaming Greenies for the intestinal blockage that caused the death of their dog Burt.

"I'm mad that their packaging states that the product is 100 percent edible, highly digestible and veterinarian approved, yet our dog died of it," Eastwood told CNN.

S&M NuTec, which manufactures the toothbrush-shaped chew, won't comment on the case but in court papers denied the allegations.

Roetheli said the focus should be on the dental benefits and Greenies are saving dogs' lives by lowering the risk of periodontal disease.

He says feeding Greenies is far safer than putting a dog under anesthesia to clean teeth.

"Dogs really love the product!" he said. "They do a very effective job of cleaning teeth and freshening breath."

Any suggestion that Greenies are defective was rejected by Roetheli, who developed Greenies with his wife, Judy.

"Our product is safe. It is used every day by thousands of dogs, millions a week and it is basically a very safe product."

A CNN investigation uncovered 40 cases since 2003 where a veterinarian had to extract a Greenie from a dog after the treat became lodged either in the animal's esophagus or intestine. In 13 of those cases, the pet died.

One of those was Tyson, Josh Glass and Leah Falls' 8-month-old boxer, who was taken to Brent-Air Animal Hospital in Los Angeles, California, where vet Dr. Kevin Schlanger found the animal had a blocked intestine.

"It was very clear that it was something dense and firm that had caused the obstruction," Schlanger said. He removed a Greenie from the intestine.

McKiernan's says his Denver clinic has seen at least seven cases in the past five years, which he says is an unusually high number. That prompted him to start researching and writing a paper to warn other veterinarians of the problem.

He says his research, which he hopes to get published in a veterinary journal, shows compressed vegetable chew treats, of which Greenies is the most popular, are now the third biggest cause of esophageal obstruction in dogs behind bones and fish hooks.

The federal Food and Drug Administration says it's looking into eight consumer complaints about Greenies but has no formal investigation.

The issue has also been the topic of news reports across the country.

The chews are made of digestible products like wheat gluten and fiber, experts say, but the molding process makes the treat very firm and hard.

Roetheli, who runs S&M NuTec from Kansas City, Missouri, says Greenies do break down when properly chewed and swallowed by a dog.

He told CNN that any product has the potential to cause an obstruction in a dog and that Greenies packaging warns dog owners to monitor their dog to ensure the treat is adequately chewed. "Gulping any item can be harmful or even fatal to a dog," the package says.

The company's Web site addresses the issue in its FAQ section with the question "When giving an animal Greenies, does it affect their digestive system?" The answer "The only time dogs would be unable to digest anything would be if they didn't chew it up before they swallowed it. Canine and Feline Greenies are highly digestible when chewed."

The company says the number of complaints it has received is very low in relation to the vast numbers of treats sold, and CNN spoke with several vets who recommended Greenies.

Introduced in 1998, we found Greenies now selling for about $16 a pound. Last year, 325 million individual treats were sold around the world, nearly three times the sales of its nearest competitor Milk Bone, according to the marketing company Euromonitor International.

"At the end of the day . literally millions of Greenies are enjoyed by dogs on a weekly basis with absolutely no incidents," company vet Brad Quest told CNN.

Watch the video: Himalayan Dog Chew Recipe

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