Aflatoxin: The Single Pet Food Ingredient to Be Especially Vigilant About

Aflatoxin in Pet Foods

Oct 9 2013

If you’re a regular reader of Dr. Becker’s Healthy Pets newsletter, you know she often discusses the need to feed dogs and cats the right type of protein.  And, of course, species-appropriate protein for carnivorous pets comes from animals – not plants.

But there are other concerns with plant-based pet food ingredients separate from the fact that they are biologically inappropriate protein sources for carnivores.

Almost a year ago, she wrote about the potential for an increase in deadly aflatoxins in pet food made with corn-based ingredients.  The increased risk is due to extreme drought conditions in the U.S. Midwest.  Aflatoxins are naturally-occurring mycotoxins produced by the Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus paraciticusspecies of fungi that grow on certain crops. Aflatoxins are highly carcinogenic.  They poison the liver and promote tumor development.

Given the drought and the number of pet foods – especially dry dog foods – that contain corn products these days, it wasn’t a surprise earlier in the year to learn of several pet food recalls for aflatoxin contamination.

‘Pet Foods with Plant-Derived Proteins May Contain More Harmful Toxins Than Pet Foods with Traditional Fish and Meat Proteins.’

Now it seems the mainstream pet food industry may be catching on.  According to

“Pet foods with plant-derived proteins may also contain more harmful toxins than pet foods with traditional fish and meat proteins, according to new research from the University of Guelph.”

Animal and poultry science professor Trevor Smith at Guelph in Canada is conducting the research.  “A shift in pet food ingredients is on,” says Smith. “Instead of worrying about bacteria spoilage or disease contamination, like we have in the past, we now have to focus on removing mycotoxins.”

According to Smith, who has spent over three decades researching mycotoxins:

“Although we have no exact numbers, we can estimate that when half of the food is of vegetable origin, there will almost always be some degree of contamination.  If the food is mainly of animal origins, the chances of contamination are greatly reduced.”

He counsels pet owners to minimize the risk by avoiding inexpensive pet foods containing vegetable cereals, corn or wheat fillers, and especially rice bran.

Foods Most Likely to Be Contaminated with Aflatoxins

Aflatoxins frequently contaminate agricultural crops before they are harvested.  Conditions that promote pre-harvest contamination include high temperatures, prolonged periods of drought, and insect activity.

Aflatoxins can also be a problem after harvesting if the crop stays wet for too long.  And they can grow on stored crops if the moisture level is too high and mold develops.

The three plants with the highest rate of aflatoxin contamination are corn, peanuts and cottonseed.  Other frequently contaminated agricultural products include:

  • Maize, sorghum, pearl millet, rice, and wheat cereals
  • Peanut, soybean, and sunflower oilseeds
  • Chili peppers, black pepper, coriander, turmeric, and ginger spices
  • Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, coconuts, brazil nuts

Processed foods containing corn can also carry a risk of aflatoxin adulteration.  Infected corn and cottonseed meal fed to dairy cows has resulted in aflatoxin contamination of milk and other dairy products including cheese and yogurt.

How to Steer Clear of Aflatoxin-Infected Pet Foods

Aflatoxicosis is more common in dogs than cats because commercial dog food formulas more often contain corn products.  So if you’re a dog owner, you should be especially vigilant.

Dr. Becker recommends you transition your pet away from all dry food to either a high quality, human grade canned food, or better yet, a balanced, fresh food diet.  can make your pet’s meals at home using recipes that are balanced nutritionally for either a cat or a dog.  You can also look into commercially prepared raw pet foods as well as dehydrated raw.  Or you can consider a mixture of homemade and commercially prepared diets.

In the meantime, study the ingredients in the dry food you buy your pet, and avoid brands containing grains or corn in any form, including corn gluten meal, whole grain corn, corn flour, etc.  Along with the increased risk of for aflatoxin contamination, corn is a notoriously allergenic food that is difficult for many animals to digest.

Also avoid formulas containing cereal grains like maize, sorghum, pearl millet, rice and wheat.

Symptoms of Aflatoxin Poisoning

Aflatoxicosis is chiefly a disease of the liver, causing GI symptoms, reproductive issues, anemia and jaundice.  Certain types of aflatoxins are linked to cancer in animals.

If your dog or cat ingests food contaminated with aflatoxins, you can anticipate one or more of these symptoms: severe, persistent vomiting; bloody diarrhea; lack of appetite; fever; sluggishness; discolored urine; jaundice, especially around the whites of the eyes, gums and belly.

If you think your pet has eaten potentially contaminated food, even if he’s showing no symptoms of illness, get him to your veterinarian or an emergency vet clinic as soon as possible.  And bring the food with you.

Dr. Becker also recommends you talk with your holistic vet about natural liver detox agents like milk thistle, SAMe, and chlorophyll.

Dr. Becker


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