Everything You Need to Know About Aflatoxin and Your Pet’s Food

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of pet food have been recalled for contamination with aflatoxin. Such recalls have been responsible for hundreds, and maybe thousands of pet deaths – and you may be wondering why such recalls keep happening. The truth is that recalls for contaminants like aflatoxin contamination are preventable. When pets become ill or die it is very frustrating for pet parents and anyone in the pet industry. Illness from aflatoxin is called aflatoxicosis. It can be hard to diagnose since signs associated with it are called ‘non-specific’. In other words, they are vague and can be the same for many diseases and conditions. So, what do you need to know as a pet owner? Let’s tackle the basics:

What are Aflatoxins?

Aflatoxins are a family of toxins that are produced by certain fungi (Aspergillus flavus and aspergillus parasiticus) that can be found on agricultural crops such as corn, rice, wheat, oats, peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts – just to name a few. Aflatoxins are abundant in warm and humid regions of the world and are actually allowed in both human and pet food at very low levels. The risk and level of contamination go up in certain environmental temperatures and moisture conditions.There are four different aflatoxins that are capable of contaminating foods: B1, B2, G1, and G2. The most worrisome aflatoxin is B1. B1 is referred to as ‘hepatotoxic’, meaning that it is toxic to the liver and can make pets very ill and lead to death. Often, aflatoxicosis is a result of an accumulative effect, meaning that it gets worse the more a contaminated pet food is consumed. This also means that contaminated foods may circulate in the market for weeks, and even months before the source is discovered and a recall can be announced.

In 2005 and 2012 there were multiple recalls of Aflatoxin contaminated pet food in the marketplace. As a result, several pets became extremely ill and many died from eating these foods. Two more recent incidents from Sunshine Mills (2020) and now Midwestern Pet Foods in 2021 have triggered large recalls due to deadly aflatoxin contamination.

What signs should I look for in my pet?

If you suspect your pet has consumed pet food contaminated with aflatoxin there are several signs you should watch for. Be sure to alert your veterinarian and seek medical attention for your pet should any of these signs develop.

Common Clinical Signs with Aflatoxicosis:

  • Lethargy (sluggishness, tiredness, lack of excitement)
  • Food Aversion or Anorexia (not wanting to eat)
  • Vomiting, or vomiting blood
  • Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the eyes, gums, or skin)
  • Diarrhea or Melena (dark bloody stool, sometimes looks like coffee grounds)

What will my veterinarian check for?

Your veterinarian or emergency clinic will likely run several tests to determine the health status of your pet. Often times, one of the clues for aflatoxicosis is in the results of liver function tests, which are part of a general blood chemistry panel. After running these tests results of elevated liver values (ALT-alanine transaminase and AST- aspartate transaminase) are often present. These are often in addition to increased total bilirubin concentrations, and prolonged prothrombin time (PPT).Often times pet owners report the pets having an aversion to their food around the time that these symptoms start to develop – so it’s important to tell your veterinarian about any behavioral, food intake, or energy changes. Sometimes small clues can help connect the dots to the bigger picture. When it comes to pet food, remember that unlike humans, pets eat the same diet continuously which means the toxins accumulate in their system quicker. This also means that the body may also have less time, or a lessened ability to detoxify itself in such situations.

How does Aflatoxin get in pet food – and how do I avoid it?

We know that corn is one of the most common culprits of aflatoxin contamination in pet food. This is also a reason that grain free pet foods have risen in popularity in recent years. Regardless of the type of pet food you feed, or the ingredients contained within it – aflatoxin contamination is still a potential risk and is not isolated to just corn. This means that pet food manufacturers should test all of their ingredients and final product to ensure aflatoxin and other contaminants are not a problem.Some manufacturers do not do this, and as a result, contaminated products end up in the marketplace. As a pet owner, you can call your pet food company or ask the store you purchase your pets’ food from if the manufacturer has adequate safety checks in place. The reality is that such safety checks are not required by law – but contamination with aflatoxin would trigger a recall. It would be in any manufacturer’s best interest to ensure they have safety checks in place.

Is there anything else I should know?

Keep in mind that all pets, and people, are different. This means that there are multiple factors that can influence a pet’s susceptibility to aflatoxicosis – or anything else. For example, genetics, age, hormonal status, nutritional status, exercise and other types of illness present can influence the severity of aflatoxicosis. In other words, pets may react differently even if they are eating the same food.

What do I do with my food if I think it may be recalled?

If you are feeding a currently recalled food, or if you suspect your pet may be exhibiting signs of aflatoxicosis:

  • Contact your veterinarian immediately
  • Save any remaining pet food you have
  • Save pet food packaging and take pictures to document date and lot codes
  • Bring the packaging and pet food to your veterinarian who can help you file a complaint with the FDA and send samples out for laboratory testing if needed

If you want to know more about the types of questions you should ask your pet food company you can click here.

About the Authors:

Morgan Hunt

Meet Morgan,  a Veterinary Assistant/Technician at Branford Veterinary Hospital and a Pet Problem Solver at NorthPoint Pets & Company! She is currently enrolled in a veterinary technician program at San Juan College and will one day be a Certified Technician. Her interests in the animal world are mainly behavior & nutrition.  She has a Pit Mix named Tyson and a Dalmatian named Pongo who keep her on her toes learning more and more every day.Nicole Cammack

Nicole is the founder & owner of award-winning NorthPoint Pets & Company, in Connecticut. She is also the Founder & CEO of Undogmatic Inc. Her undergraduate and graduate education includes biology, chemistry, business and nutrition. She has worked in the pharmaceutical industry on multiple R&D projects and has had the privilege to learn from leading international figures in the human and pet health industry. She regularly lectures at national conferences, including federal, state, and municipal K9 events. Her current research involves identifying pathogenic risk factors and transmission among raw fed pets through a comprehensive worldwide survey.