Dozens of dogs die after eating tainted kibble

Recall underway on Sportmix brand pet foods found with high aflatoxin levels

December 31, 2020 (published)
By Edie Lau

Screenshot from Midwestern Pet Foods press release
An image provided by the maker of Sportmix brand pet foods shows examples of products under recall.

In a single kennel in southwest Missouri, at least 18 dogs have died and more are gravely ill, apparently poisoned by their diet.

Two other kennels in the same region have lost multiple dogs, as well, according to Dr. David Sikes, a veterinarian whose diagnostic skills helped identify a problem that led this week to the latest pet food recall in the United States.

The FDA announced Wednesday that Midwestern Pet Foods Inc., maker of Sportmix brand pet food, is recalling certain lots of six different products due to "potentially fatal levels of aflatoxin."

The FDA said it was aware of at least 28 dogs that have died and eight that became ill after eating affected foods. "This is an ongoing investigation," the agency said. "Case counts and the scope of this recall may expand as new information becomes available."

The foods are distributed nationwide in stores and online.

The recall affects Sportmix dry foods made for cats as well as dogs, although no illnesses in cats have been reported, according to a press release from Midwestern.

Recalled products and lot numbers

Aflatoxin is produced by Aspergillus flavus, a mold that can grow on corn and other grains used in pet foods. The FDA notes that the toxin can be present even when no mold is visible.

Clinical signs of aflatoxin poisoning in pets include sluggishness, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and jaundice. Pets may experience liver damage without showing any signs, according to the FDA. For that reason, the agency advises owners whose dogs have eaten any of the recalled products to contact their veterinarians even if the dog doesn't appear to be sick.

The FDA said no evidence suggests that people who handle products containing aflatoxin are at risk of aflatoxin poisoning. "However," the agency added, "pet owners should always wash their hands after handling pet food."

The FDA explains that pets are "highly susceptible to aflatoxin poisoning because, unlike people, who eat a varied diet, pets generally eat the same food continuously over extended periods of time. If a pet’s food contains aflatoxin, the toxin could accumulate in the pet’s system as they continue to eat the same food."

Sikes, owner of Lebanon Veterinary Clinic in Lebanon, Missouri, said he first became aware of the problem one week before Christmas, when a new client called him about a mysterious spate of deaths at the kennel he operates. The animals had bloody diarrhea, bloody vomiting and jaundice.

When laboratory tests showed no signs of infectious disease, Sikes said, he suspected aflatoxicosis. Most of the approximately 70 dogs at the kennel, he said, were fed the same Sportmix diet.

Sikes sent food samples for analysis by Dr. Tim Evans, an associate professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Veterinary Pathology. On Christmas Eve, the results came back positive for aflatoxin.

Within days, the holiday notwithstanding, the Missouri Department of Agriculture confirmed the finding and notified the FDA and the pet food company, Sikes said. "I've never heard of a recall being done this quickly," he said.

Unfortunately for his client, the damage is done. "He's losing two or three dogs every single day," Sikes said.

The kennel has a variety of dog breeds, including Havanese, soft-coated wheaten terriers, corgis and rottweilers, Sikes said. "This is a very well-run kennel; they take good care of their dogs." Before the outbreak occurred, the client had about 70 dogs, Sikes said.

Photo courtesy of Dr. David Sikes
Cocker spaniel puppies born on the same day to sisters have a marked size difference. The mother of the smaller pup (right), had been fed Sportmix, a brand later found to be contaminated with aflatoxin.

Giving an example of aflatoxin's apparent effects, Sikes said the client had two cocker spaniel dogs, sisters, who gave birth on the same day. Each had six puppies. "One female, her puppies were one-third the size of the sister's puppies," he said.

The reason for the difference, he suspects, is that the sister with the smaller pups was fed Sportmix, the kennel diet. The sister with the larger pups was a house pet who was given different food. The sister with the smaller puppies ended up dying, he said.

Sikes credits breeders' help in identifying the problem quickly.

"That's the only reason we're finding this," he said. "If this was an individual that was sick, most [owners] are not going to spend the thousands of dollars necessary to find out what is going on. So without these kennels' help, we would be weeks or months down the road with hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs dead before we found what was going on."

Sikes urges anyone with recalled food to stop feeding it immediately and to take their pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible to assess whether the pet has liver damage. "What we're seeing is the rapid progression of the disease and acute death," he said. "Some of the previous reports indicate that once they become symptomatic, treatment is unsuccessful. So early intervention is key."

The FDA advises disposing of unused recalled product in a way that children, pets and wildlife cannot access it. "Sanitize pet food bowls, scoops and storage containers using bleach, rinsing well afterwards with water and drying thoroughly," the agency says.

The FDA asks veterinarians who suspect aflatoxin poisoning in their patients to report it through the agency's safety reporting portal. Pet owners also may submit reports.

Midwestern Pet Foods is a family-owned business dating to 1926, according to information on the Sportmix website. It has facilities in Monmouth, Illinois; Chickasha, Oklahoma; Evansville, Indiana; and Waverly, New York.

The Sportmix pet foods are the second such products in the U.S. to be recalled within the past four months due to aflatoxin contamination. In September, foods made by Sunshine Mills Inc. were recalled for the same issue.

Update: The FDA sent a warning letter dated Aug. 9, 2021, to Jeffrey Nunn, president, CEO and co-owner of Midwestern Pet Foods, saying that inspections of the company's manufacturing sites revealed apparent violations of the federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, and that the agency has been unable to evaluate the adequacy and implementation of corrective actions proposed by the company. The agency said more than 130 deaths and more than 220 illnesses in dogs may be linked to their eating pet food that Midwestern manufactured.

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