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Ask a Vet: What Should I Do if My Cat’s Food Is Recalled?

Last Updated on June 4, 2015 by Dr. Eric Barchas

Food of all varieties is recalled with stunning regularity. Significant recalls of human foods have affected spinach, chicken, and peanut butter in recent times.

But cat food recalls will forever live in infamy due to the massive pet food recall of 2007. The recall itself of course was newsworthy, but the real news in 2007 was this: Thousands of cats were killed and sickened by their food.

The 2007 recall involved dozens of brands of food. The episode revolved around tainted wheat gluten. The manufacturer of the wheat gluten had adulterated the product with compound called melamine. The reason for the adulteration was to game chemical assays that determine protein content. Melamine, when added to wheat gluten, makes the gluten appear to have a higher protein content than it truly does.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the 2007 incident was especially scandalous and deadly because the wheat gluten manufacturer appeared to cut every possible corner. Not content merely to adulterate the product, the manufacturer evidently used the cheapest melamine it could find. And here was the problem: This low quality melamine was itself tainted with a product called cyanuric acid.

The melamine combined with the cyanuric acid in the kidneys of cats and dogs and led to kidney failure. Thousands of cats and dogs are estimated to have died. Heartbreak and fear were widespread. Pet lovers everywhere came to live in fear of the words “pet food recall.”

Pet food recalls continue regularly to this day. The United Stated Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may recently have ticked me off by not allowing my clients to administer over-the-counter human medications to their cats, but I will confess that the FDA does some good work. For instance, it maintains a database of recalled pet food. The AVMA — another organization for which I have had harsh words in the past — maintains a similar list.

If you review either list (and I recommend that all pet owners regularly do this), you will see that many cat foods have been recalled in the last months of 2013 and the early months of 2014. What should you do if your food is on the list?

It will come as no surprise that the first step is to stop feeding the food. You also should contact your vet to discuss the situation. What happens next will depend on the reason why the food was recalled.

For instance, foods are occasionally recalled for improper nutrient balances that can lead to nutritional deficiencies (or surpluses) over time. Generally a diet change is all that is necessary for cats whose foods are recalled for this reason.

Substantial chemical contamination, such as occurred in 2007, may require intensive monitoring, hospitalization, and serial blood work.

But if you scan the lists compiled by FDA and AVMA, you will see that the overwhelming majority of pet food recalls are due to a different problem. Bacterial contamination, notably with Salmonella or E. Coli, is by far and away the most common reason why pet foods are recalled. If your cat’s food is recalled, bacterial contamination risk is probably going to be the reason why. (Another bacteria, Campylobacter, is also a common culprit.)

Salmonella and E. Coli are found frequently in the feces of many animals such as chickens and cows. If feces taints the meat of the animals at the time of slaughter, then the meat may contain the bacteria. Fruits and vegetables may become contaminated with the bacteria if they into contact with feces, or if there is contamination at some point in the processing of packaged foods (such as occurred in the massive spinach recall of 2006).

Salmonella, E.coli, and Campylobacter most frequently cause symptoms of gastrointestinal upset and distress. Vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and poor appetite are the most common symptoms in cats, dogs, and people. Salmonella and especially certain varieties of E. coli have the potential to cause systemic infections as well; these infections can become life threatening.

Note that I mentioned people in the above paragraph. FDA gets really worried about bacterial contamination of cat food in part because cats infected with Salmonella or E. coli or Campylobacter can spread the organisms to the humans in their families. Thus, contaminated cat food poses a risk not only to cats, but to everyone in the family.

And then there is the matter of sublinical carriers of bacterial infection. Some individuals — be they cats, dogs, or humans — can become infected with certain bacteria without developing any symptoms. These individuals can then spread the bacteria to other, more sensitive individuals who might get sick. Typhoid Mary, a carrier of typhoid fever (caused by a type of Salmonella), is a classic example of this phenomenon.

Imagine your cat has been eating a food that has been recalled due to risk of bacterial contamination. If she develops any symptoms, then of course she will need treatment with antibiotics. But some vets recommend prophylactic antibiotics even in cats who appear healthy in order to protect the humans and potentially other pets in the house.

In short, there are two steps to take if your cat’s food is recalled. Stop feeding the food, and contact your veterinarian. Happily, widespread death from contaminated cat food has not been common since 2007. However, cat owners always should be vigilant about pet foods. Check in with the databases at AVMA and FDA regularly.

The link to the FDA database is here; the link to the AVMA database is here.

Read more about some cat food recalls within the past year:

Learn more about your cat with Catster:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

About the Author

Dr. Eric Barchas
Dr. Eric Barchas

Dr. Eric Barchas is a professional traveler who spends his spare time working as a full-time veterinarian; contributing to Dogster and Catster; walking, cooking, camping, and exploring the outdoors; skiing (when conditions permit); and reading Booker-shortlisted novels. In between trips Dr. Barchas lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Denise, and his canine pal, Buster. His main veterinary interests are emergency and critical care, wellness, pain management and promotion of the human-animal bond. Dr. Barchas has to Dogster and Catster since May 2005. 

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