Nearly 600 dogs and cats have died and 3,600 more have been sickened since 2007 as a result of eating poisonous jerky treats, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in a statement Tuesday. The agency used the opportunity to put out a call to pet owners to assist in gathering information about the cause of the scourge.
The number of illnesses and deaths -- the vast majority of which have affected dogs -- have risen since January, when the FDA reported more than 3,200 dogs and cats had been sick and over 500 died, apparently from eating chicken, duck, sweet potato and fruit-flavored jerky treats, many of which are imported from China.
While the federal agency continues to investigate, it has not yet determined exactly why so many pets are getting sick.
"This is one of the most elusive and mysterious outbreaks we've encountered," FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine Director Bernadette Dunham said in a statement on the agency's website.
The FDA noted that reports of pets sickened from jerky treats have declined since a number of jerky products for pets were taken off shelves in January. The decision to pull the snacks came after a New York lab found trace amounts of six types of antibiotics in chicken jerky treats made in China, five of which are banned in the U.S.
Still, the agency said that the levels of the drugs detected by the lab were very low and therefore had not likely caused the deaths. It also said that visits to the Chinese factories associated with the highest number of pet illnesses did not completely answer questions surrounding the deaths, and that the issue may lie with suppliers of certain ingredients to those plants.
One Chinese pet treat maker, however, was forbidden from exporting by Chinese regulators after it was found that it had falsified records for glycerin, one of the ingredients in the treats, The Chicago Tribune reported.
The FDA said it continues to test jerky products for chemical contaminants and continues to meet with Chinese regulators and U.S. pet food companies to share information.
The agency recommends that owners who feed their pets jerky treats should be on the lookout for signs of decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea, increased water consumption and increased urination in their pets.
If your pet may have been sickened by eating jerky products, report your findings to the FDA by calling 1-888-INFO-FDA.