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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2001

‘Mad Pet’ Disease

Mad Cow Disease is Killing Europe’s Pets

In 1985, the world began to hear about a disease that was affecting cattle in the UK – bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease. Variants of the disease – known to affect cattle, sheep and humans – left the brains of its victims riddled with holes and resembling a sponge.

Contaminated material from cattle infected with BSE has been rendered and used in commercial pet foods in Europe. Most scientists determined the practice would be safe; that BSE would not cross the species barrier. They were wrong.

As of January 2000, more than 100 cats in the UK had died from illnesses attributed to eating diseased meat contained in commercial pet foods made in Europe. Some veterinarians believe the actual number of cats who died from feline spongiform encephalopathy (the feline variant of mad cow disease) is far greater.

Although meat and bone meal cannot be used in ruminant feed, Britain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries has ruled that it can be used in pet foods, provided it is not from BSE suspects. In 1989, in the wake of mad cow fears, Britain’s Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, announced that it had "voluntarily banned the use of specified bovine tissues" in pet foods. The ban suspended the use of rendered spleen, tonsils, brain, thymus, spinal cord and large intestines of cattle.

In 1996, however, Agriculture Minister Angela Browning informed the House of Commons that "mammalian meat and bone meal-powdered residue from culled and rendered cattle is used in pet food." Labour Parliament member and microbiologist Martyn Jones called Browning’s admission "an astounding revelation. This stuff is so risky that they are not even allowed to bury it," Jones stated. "Yet they are getting rid of it by passing it on to pet food manufacturers."

By this time, not only were household cats contracting the disease but it had also spread to animals in zoos where it killed a lion, five cheetahs, three ocelots, two tigers, three pumas, six eland, six kudu and one bison.

For years, government officials claimed that dogs were not susceptible to a canine form of BSE. But were we getting the truth? In 1997, Reuters European Business unearthed a 1991 study on the brains of 444 dead hunting hounds that suggested some of the animals had developed the first signs of "spongiform disease."

Despite the concerns of medical doctors and veterinarians, no further tests on the tissue samples from these animals were ever done. Veterinarian Iain McGill pronounced this failure "surprising, to say the least."

In November 1997 a golden retriever in Norway died after suffering from the effects of BSE. An autopsy confirmed the presence of BSE-related brain damage. Eivind Liven, the director of Norway’s animal health board, told the press the animal had most likely contracted the disease through eating contaminated dog food.

In February 1997, the US Food and Drug Administration sponsored a forum with the pet food and rendering industries to propose placing a warning label on cans of pet foods. The FDA’s suggested warning would have read: "Contains (or may contain) protein derived from ruminant and mink tissues. Do not feed to ruminant animals, and do not use to manufacture feed intended for ruminant animals."

Representatives of the pet food industry requested that the statement not be included on pet food labels and the FDA abandoned the plan.

BSE likely exists in the US and Canada because both countries have the same conditions that existed in the UK prior to the outbreak – scrapie in sheep, rendering of sheep offal, outbreaks of mink encephalophy and minimal screening of weak and stumbling "downer" cattle.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of our woes with spongiform encephalopathy in all its forms – including canine and feline.

What You Can Do: Read the labels. Avoid major commercial pet foods containing any animal by-products. Purchase healthy alternatives from companies like Innova, Natural Life and Precise.

Excerpted from Protect Your Pet [New Sage Press, PO Box 607, Troutdale, OR 97060, (503) 695-2211, http://www.newsagepress.com].

   

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