How Did a Euthanasia Drug Get into Pet Foods?

Dr. Ernie Ward

February 20, 2018

On New Year’s Eve 2016, Nicole and Guy Mael decided to celebrate with their five pugs by offering a special meal of Evanger’s “Hunk of Beef Au Jus” canned dog food. Within minutes after sharing the can of Evanger’s, all of the dogs were staggering and convulsing, and rushed to a nearby veterinary emergency clinic. Sadly, one of the pugs, Talula, died a few hours later. The owners sent the remainder of the food for analysis at Michigan State University Diagnostic Center and had a necropsy conducted on Talula. The owner said, “Nobody should have to go through what we went through.”  The results showed the euthanasia drug, pentobarbital, present.

Talula’s death kicked off a year-long cycle of pet food recalls, lawsuits, and many unanswered questions about how a euthanasia drug ended up in so many pet foods.

The presence of pentobarbital in pet food has now expanded into the third largest pet food company in the world, the JM Smucker Company. Ol’ Roy, Gravy Train, Kibbles ‘n Bits, and Skippy are Smucker’s brands recalled, joining Evanger’s, Against the Grain, and CocoLicious in the pentobarbital recall.

This recall reminds me of the situation in the early 1990’s when veterinarians began complaining to the FDA that pentobarbital wasn’t working well as a euthanasia agent. Many veterinarians began speculating that pentobarbital was present in pet foods, especially dog foods that used rendered horse meat. Dog food manufacturers vigorously denied pentobarbital was present in their foods. The FDA promised to investigate these claims.

It wasn’t until 1998 and 2000 that the FDA published their findings. First, they revealed that pentobarbital was present in dog foods, a LOT of dog foods. I encourage you to visit the FDA website to see what brands were studied 20 years ago and found to contain pentobarbital.

Second, and most concerning to me, was that the FDA established an acceptable level for pentobarbital in pet foods. They concluded, somewhat frighteningly, that the low amounts of euthanasia solution present in many dog foods were essentially harmless. “Thus, the results of the assessment led CVM to conclude that it is highly unlikely a dog consuming dry dog food will experience any adverse effects from exposures to the low levels of pentobarbital found in CVM’s dog food surveys.” But still, we had questions.

In 2002, the FDA sought to clarify their 1998 and 2000 studies. Once again, and to my surprise, they continued to defend euthanasia solution in pet foods. The FDA wrote, “The low levels of exposure to sodium pentobarbital (pentobarbital) that dogs might receive through food is unlikely to cause them any adverse health effects…”

In summary, the FDA acknowledged that pentobarbital was present in foods and that the levels were too low to cause illness or death. But still, how does a euthanasia drug end up in pet food?

First of all, I’d like to address the myth that euthanized dogs and cats are the source of pet food pentobarbital. Various labs, including the FDA, use DNA tests to analyze the protein origin and haven’t found cat and dog proteins in pet foods. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen; it only means the evidence points to, and confirms at this time, other sources of contamination.

The FDA and other labs have found rendered horse meat and beef to be present in pet foods containing pentobarbital. The most recent Evanger’s, Against the Grain, CocoLicious, and Smucker’s recalls have been blamed on the presence of rendered horse meat. Pentobarbital is commonly used to euthanize horses, and rendered horse meat is used in dog foods, so horse meat is a likely source of the deadly drug. And that brings up another important question about truthfulness in pet food labels and marketing.

The Evanger’s recall is important not only because it initiated a fantastic journalistic investigation by Lisa Fletcher and her skilled team at Washington DC’s ABC affiliate, WJLA, but because it exposed potentially deceitful marketing by pet food companies. The pet food that allegedly killed Talula the pug reportedly contained a single ingredient, “100% Whole Beef Cooked In Its Own Juices.” Evanger’s blames the supplier for substituting “horse” for “beef,” but still, pentobarbital was found after repeated denials.

Deny, deny, deny, then blame someone else seems to be the standard corporate defense of public scandals these days. After the 2007 melamine pet food recall, we made some progress in the protections of our pet’s foods and treats. My sincerest hope is that these current pentobarbital pet food recalls will lead to safer foods and more truthful marketing practices. I hope justice will be served for those affected and pet food companies committed to providing the best pet nutrition will be inspired to do even better. Until then, please carefully evaluate what, and how, you feed your pet loved ones. And to Talula’s family, I, too, hope no family ever has to endure the pain you’ve experienced.