When Tasmanian woman Jenni McCabe’s pet dog Scooby fell ill last month, his decline was sudden and devastating.
“Scooby was 11, so he was getting older, but he was still full of beans and very fit and healthy,” Ms McCabe said.
Weeks after Scooby’s death, Ms McCabe is just one of many pet owners calling for better standards and regulations in the Australian pet food industry.
Ms McCabe first noticed something was wrong with Scooby when she was watching the Labrador cross Mastiff in her garden through the kitchen window one afternoon. He seemed to be struggling to urinate.
Ms McCabe took Scooby to a veterinarian, who ran blood tests and xrays.
Scooby appeared to have an enlarged bladder, the veterinarian said.
Medication was prescribed but Scooby’s condition continued to go downhill.
“He just stopped eating,” she said.
“We tried everything to get him to eat, from roast chickens to pizzas and he just put his nose up to everything,” Ms McCabe said.
After a week, Ms McCabe took Scooby back to the veterinarian again, who inserted a catheter to drain litres of urine from his bladder.
Ms McCabe was told Scooby would need to have a catheter inserted twice a day.
But Scooby’s condition worsened and a couple of days later, on February 20, he died at home.
Scooby’s veterinary report, seen by 9news.com.au, shows his veterinarian was puzzled by what could be behind his sudden illness.
But Ms McCabe believes an adverse reaction caused his death.
It was during Scooby’s last days that Ms McCabe went online and noticed an alarming number of one star reviews about a pet food she had started feeding her dog two days before he got sick.
Scooby’s usual brand of dog food was out of stock, so Ms McCabe purchased another brand of dog food.
“When I saw the reviews, I was gobsmacked and horrified,” Ms McCabe said.
“How could I have been so stupid to not to have checked out the product on the reviews before purchasing?”
Published on the website ‘Pet Food Reviews’ were “200 reports of sickness and death” it claimed to have received from pet owners related to this brand.
Then there were the posts on Facebook’s Australian Pet Owners’ Group.
Tasmanian Cush Allison started the 8000-member group after his pet dog, Tank, died in 2017, less than 24 hours after eating the food.
Mr Allison told 9news.com.au his five-year-old Bull Arab had been otherwise healthy but, he claimed within hours he was having convulsions and was crashing into furniture.
Tank was blind by the time he passed away, Mr Allison said.
In a post Ms McCabe put up on a local Facebook group, several other owners commented claiming that their dogs had also had an adverse reaction.
“It was mind-blowing. I loved Scooby to bits. He was our world, he was everything to us,” Ms McCabe said.
“In a way, I feel like I have murdered him.”
The company that stocks the pet food told 9news.com.au it was “incredibly popular with customers looking for a quality product at an affordable price”.
“Testing has been conducted on the range to ensure it complies with voluntary Australian standards and our manufacturers hold independent quality certification for the safe production of pet food.
“We take the safety of our customers and their pets seriously. We haven’t seen any veterinary reports or evidence attributing an illness or adverse reaction to the product, but if someone has this we would encourage them to bring it to us so we can look into it.”
There are other brands that have attracted a host of reviews highlighting adverse reactions online.
Craig Buttigieg, from Melbourne, told 9news.com.au his Kelpie puppy fell ill a few days after she was fed another brand for the first time in December last year.
Bailey suddenly developed diarrhoea and began vomiting. She spent days in a veterinary hospital.
“The vets said it was not looking good, they were not expecting her to survive,” Mr Buttigieg said.
But, to the family’s relief, Bailey did recover after being fed a strict diet of chicken and rice.
Rebecca Vella, also from Melbourne, said her dog Lola, a seven-year-old Labrador cross Staffie fell seriously ill in August 2020.
“My dog got really sick and had to go to the vet several times. She lost giant patches of fur and there was vomiting and gastro,” she said.
At first, Ms Vella said she did not associate Lola’s illness with the brand, as she had eaten the product for years.
However, Ms Vella said she became suspicious when Lola recovered while on a different diet, only to fall ill again when that brand was re-introduced. Her mother’s dog had also been sick on the same pet food, she added.
The company behind that brand is a member of the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia. The association says it uses a “third party” to verify its members are complying with Australia’s voluntary pet food standards.
“All pet food brands are developed by pet nutritionists and a qualified research and development team who formulate recipes specific to the needs of pets,” a company spokesperson said.
“Throughout every stage of the manufacturing process quality teams check and inspect batches to ensure they meet the quality and food safety parameters found in the Australian Standard. Only once it has passed these assessments, is the batch released for sale.”
While all of the pet owner’s 9news.com.au spoke to acknowledge they have no direct evidence to suggest the pet foods were to blame for their dogs falling ill, they say they are convinced the pet food played a part.
The owners are calling for better standards for manufactured pet food in Australia.
The pet food industry in Australia is unregulated, with only voluntary standards in place that rely on the goodwill of manufacturers to test food after complaints, and order recalls if necessary.
In 2018, a Senate inquiry investigated the need for regulation to ensure pet food is safe in Australia.
It followed reports of more than 70 dogs in 2017 contracting an incurable condition, megaesophagus, where the suspected link was the popular dry dog food Advance Dermocare.
Pet food scandals in Australia have not only involved manufactured products.
In July last year, 24 dogs in Victoria died and 44 became ill with indospicine poisoning linked to contaminated horse meat sold through a knackery in Gippsland.
Pet owners, as well as industry groups and experts, say mandatory pet food standards are needed urgently.
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), RSPCA Australia and the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia have all recently called for industry regulations.
It’s a situation veterinarian Dr Sue Foster likens to “the mining industry being in agreement with the environmental lobby”.
“It’s unlikely to happen, but we have the industry wanting it, we have welfare workers wanting it and we have the Australia’s peak veterinary association all wanting the same thing.
“We have absolute consensus about the need for mandatory enforced standards with regulations.
“The chain is being dragged by government, they are the block here,” Dr Foster said, adding that nothing had changed since the 2018 Senate inquiry.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the regulation of pet food in Australia was solely a state and territory responsibility.
“The Federal Government has assisted the States and Territories assess options on the issue of pet food regulation in Australia and is continuing to do so,” the minister said.
“It is now up to the state and territories to make decisions.”
Australia has a voluntary reporting system for veterinarians to record possible or suspected cases of adverse reactions in pets to food – called PetFAST.
Dr Foster is one of the AVA’s PetFAST representatives.
Underreporting continued to be a major issue for PetFAST, Dr Foster said, with many busy vets not having time to make reports.
Some vets were also not aware that PetFAST existed or were reluctant to make reports, falsely believing they needed strong evidence a particular food was to blame for a dog’s illness, she said.
All PetFAST reports were followed up with the manufacturer involved, however PetFAST had no capacity for independent testing, Dr Foster said.
“There is no independent testing because there is no funding,” she said.
“My position is entirely voluntary, everyone’s position on PetFast is voluntary. There’s no government funding.
“It’s purely goodwill. Because there is no regulation there is no requirement for industries to do any checking or testing.”
Dr Foster said the lack of independent testing was a “major problem”.
“Good players will do the right thing, but the majority of reports we see relate to manufacturers who aren’t even members of the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia so we have no way of sometimes even engaging with them.”
Dr Foster urged owners to ask their veterinarians to make a report if they suspected an adverse reaction to a particular product.
Social media had been helpful in the past in detecting possible issues with pet food, however it could also lead pet owners astray, Dr Foster said.
“There is huge power in social media. The problem with social media is every animal eats, so every single problem can be attributed to pet food, whether it is related to pet food or not.”
However, Dr Foster said she could understand the lack of confidence pet owners had in the pet food they were buying.
“It’s a very big problem for conscientious Australian pet owners to work out what’s safe and what’s not and whether there are checks and balances.
“I think it’s a very real concern.”
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org