Myth 7: If it is sold for pets, it must be safe

Updated November 29, 2020

Update 2018: visit this page for details on the ongoing Senate inquiry into pet food safety.

Perhaps the biggest scandal of pet ownership in Australia is that there is no independent monitoring, testing or licensing of pet food products, and nowhere to turn when they cause harm. And equally shocking to vets is that it is easier to buy flea control products that are neither safe or effective than it is to buy good ones.

Pet owners are amazed when we tell them that:

  • Foods and treats can be produced by anyone without licencing
  • Food label claims are not checked or verified
  • Ingredient lists are not required to be accurate
  • No monitoring or recall occurs for most pet products

Using some recent disasters and current problems as examples, we help you choose products for your pets which are more likely to be safe and effective.

Kramar Supa Naturals Chicken Breast Strips

These chicken jerky treats appeared on the market in September 2007. Due to their popularity with dogs, they sold very well. However within weeks of their release, dogs started getting a very unusual kidney disease called proximal renal tubulopathy. It did not take long for several specialist veterinarians to realise something was wrong and to identify the likely culprit.

However, initial approaches to the company were not successful, and indeed legal action was threatened against these veterinarians. Dogs continued to get ill and die until the product was finally withdrawn late in 2008. We do not know how many deaths occurred over this time but it is likely to be hundreds.
This case highlights the lack of an independent system to report food faults, such as the American FDA.
Read an update from 2018 about new jerky poisonings here. and the hauntingly similar story of Advance Dermocare.

Status: resolved, mostly… Although the treats are off the market, occasional cases of proximal renal tubulopathy still occur and an unknown food source seems to be the culprit.
Lesson: be wary of unusual treats, and always feed these in small amounts.

Older Flea Controls

In our opinion, most older, cheap spot-ons, powders, sprays or washes sold for the control of fleas on dogs and cats should no longer be available. Due to poor safety margins and flea resistance, they are neither as safe or as effective as modern treatments. The shorter-acting products like those pictured are even worse, as the vast majority of fleas are not on your pet at the time you treat them.

We regularly see signs of toxicity even when they are used correctly, especially in puppies and kittens. The cat in the video has been exposed to a pyrethrin-based flea control. Despite the ‘natural’ origin of pyrethrins, cats are quite sensitive to their toxic effects.

We also see severe reactions and permanent hair loss at the site that some of these products are applied.

For more information on pet poisoning, see our Pet First Aid page.

Status: Ongoing
Lesson: use modern products. Follow these links for cat flea products and dog flea products. The irony is that new products have to fulfill stringent safety and efficacy tests but existing older drugs do not.

Importantly, “veterinary chemicals” like these are policed by the AVPMA. Very few pet owners would be aware that if you have a problem you can make an online report (such as was done for this cat). With enough reports like these, something will eventually be done. See the link below.

Update 2019: thankfully, the flea controls mentioned are now much less common with the availability of generic fipronil (much safer).

Orijen Pet foods
orijen cat food

In 2008, cats developed severe neurological disease after eating Orijen cat food, newly imported to Australia. The food company produce their food at lower cooking temperatures than other foods, and therefore Australian quarantine required the food to be gamma-irradiated when entering the country. This was not labelled or widely known, even though toxicity associated with gamma irradiation had been seen before.

Status: resolved, and gamma irradiation is now more widely known as a threat. What a way to find out!
Lesson: We need regulations to accurately label all the treatments a food has undergone.

Sulphite preservatives in ‘fresh’ pet meat

The addition of sulphite preservatives to ‘fresh’ pet mince is widespread due to the huge commercial advantage in long shelf life. Most prepackaged pet mince is probably treated with very high levels of sulphites and there is no requirement to warn owners on the label. Sulphites destroy vitamin B1 (thiamine), which is essential for brain metabolism. Animals fed on high percentages of sulphites-containing foods can suffer acute seizures, brain degeneration and death.

Status: Continuing problem even though we have known about this for 20 years.
Lesson: This issue highlights the need to pressure the authorities for accurate labeling of pet foods and regulation of the use of harmful additives. Until this happens, we do not recommend feeding mince made for pet consumption.

So what can pet owners do?

Here are our suggestions:

  1. Only buy products from companies with a good reputation. Despite our sympathy for the smaller producers, until these can be regulated it is safer to choose the largest, multinational companies. If you buy products which are sold in the USA, you know they automatically have to comply with the relatively tough FDA standards.
  2. Be wary of unusual treats from unknown manufacturers.
  3. If you want to feed fresh meat, only buy meat sold for human consumption. This cannot contain preservatives and all additives must be declared.
  4. Make food yourself! Why don’t you read our blog on making treats for dogs and cats.

What we need

  1. Legislation concerning pet food additives, and especially relating to added preservatives (similar preservative use in human foods is already strictly controlled)
  2. A legal requirement for full and accurate labeling of pet food ingredients. For many pet foods, the only labeling of ingredients provided is the minimum analysis which covers the percentage of crude protein, fat, fibre, moisture and salt. Listing other ingredients (including preservatives) is optional.
  3. Regulation for labeling to inform owners of any treatments the product may have undergone.
  4. An independent adverse reporting system

“RSPCA Australia advocates the comprehensive regulation of the Pet Food Industry along the entire supply chain. This should  include an independent adverse reporting system, systems to ensure product safety and reliable and accurate labelling of pet food products to inform pet owners about any ingredients and/or treatments pet food products may have been subjected to.” (from RSPCA website)

If your pet has a reaction to one of thse products used according to the label instructions, or if the product fails to perform as it is claimed, please make a report at Anyone can make a report.
Non-food products which do not make therapeutic claims are of course, completely unregulated except under consumer law.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

7 Replies to “Myth 7: If it is sold for pets, it must be safe”

  1. Hi Andrew,My two cats eat human grade kangaroo mince,I buy from a local butcher and has nothing added.My vet said they need more then this.I have tried some canned food and they will only lick the gravy.I tried pate today and had a few licks and that’s it.I also mixed the roo with petbarn cat barf,wouldn’t eat.Im scared to let them go too long without eating.One will eat some dry food,the other won’t.I have ordered some freeze dried chicken breast to sprinkle on the barf which might make it more enjoyable.My vet said to be harder and let them get used to new food,but I’m not sure how long to let them go without eating.My plan was to give roo at night and something more balanced through the day.They both have about four small meals a day.Any suggestions for a good quality wet food that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg?Sorry for long post.Im hoping they will get used to the barf,it’s leaps and bounds barf.Thanks Raelene

    1. Hi Raelene. Your vet is certainly correct, and ideally you should find a complete and balanced food to offset the meat by at least 50%. I’m not sure if the pet barn barf diet can be considered complete and balanced but you can check that yourself. As for changing over, I like the idea of only providing the kangaroo for one meal and then putting something out that they eat if they are hungry for the rest of the day. It’s important to remember that your cats didn’t always only eat kangaroo meat so I’m sure they have memories of other foods to fall back on. Sometimes though, just having kangaroo in the house makes cats hunger strike for anything else. It’s why I don’t recommend starting it. However, I’m sure with perseverance you can convert them into more nutritionally balanced feeders. Stick at it.

      1. Thank you,still trying different canned products,so hard when they just lick the gravy,trying pate style and terrine flavours,been through so many brands.I have ordered some Raw Meow Mix that you mix with muscle meats to make it complete,then I can start them on diferant proteins.They wouldn’t eat the barf.I may have to start mixing roo with the canned food as they are just refusing most of it.Have found one flavour so far that they will eat,will keep trying,thank you

    1. Hi Audrey. They appear safe for dogs, but not cats. However, since dogs and cats are closely related I avoid them regardless. Note, however, that there is no requirement to declare if a treat has been irradiated- you need to look for a warning about not feeding them to cats.

  2. Andrew – The information in this article is excellent, I wish more people had this level of awareness of the pet industry.

    There are so many loop holes and marketing tricks to dupe even the smartest of us into believing something is far better than it is, especially with pet food.

    As a bachelor of veterinary science yourself, what’s your take on the education of veterinary professionals in terms of pet nutrition, and how major corporations influence the pet space (i.e. the likes of Mars, Nestle, and their range of brands)?

    1. Thanks Dave. I wish everyone knew how little protection pets have in here in Australia. Regarding the link between pet food manufacturers and vet schools, in my day there weren’t any. I can’t comment on how students are trained these days but it would be a mistake in my opinion to get close to any particular company.

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