INVESTIGATES: ‘Dangerous chemical’ used in veterinary euthanasia found in dog food

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s the very thing we do to keep our pets alive and yet some pet foods could harm them.

Action News Jax found some pet foods have been linked to major brands. The very same chemical used to put animals to sleep has been found in some pet foods and the factories that render the meat to make them.

It frightening for animal owners, and especially heartbreaking for others, like Nikki Mael.

“He’s doing great,” she says to her dog Tito, “you’re doing great.”

Tito is alive today because of Nikkis’ quick thinking. He was one of five dogs rushed to the vet in 2016 after eating a can of dog food.

Within 15 minutes of consuming it, she says, the dogs could barely breathe. “It had to be the food,” she says, “because I didn’t give them anything else.”

Another one of her dogs, Tallulah, died from it. Tests later showed the canned dog food had Pentobarbital in it.

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It’s a dangerous chemical for any animal, says Miramar Animal Hospital veterinarian Dr. Greg Stacey. “There’s only one reason we use pentobarbital,” he tells Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner, “and unfortunately, we use it for euthanasia.”

Nikki’s case prompted a recall in 2017 by the brand she used. Then, in 2019, the FDA issued this warning for brands made by the J.M. Smucker company.

More than two dozen brands, like Gravy Train, Kibbles n’ Bits, ‘Ol Roy and Skippy foods were included in the warning. The company withdrew all lots made back to 2016, but vets say it’s a good reminder to make sure you pay close attention to what you feed your animals. “It’s just like you and me,” says Dr. Stacey, “they are living biological creatures. Food is the thing that provides them energy and health, so it is literally the most important thing that you can think about for your pet, is what you feed them.”

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And what you feed them may not be what you think. In a video of a rendering plant in Denver, it shows piles and piles of dead animals set to be cooked for pet food.

Ali, who didn’t want to use her last name, shot the video when she accidentally stumbled across the plant in 2019. “There were just thousands and thousands, she says, “mountains, piles of every kind of animal. Bloated, just ripped into pieces. It was horrifying.”

There’s no proof it’s happening here, but pet food consumer advocates, like Susan Thixton, say this process is how the Pentobarbital ends up in dog food.

The chemical used to euthanize animals doesn’t break down in the rendering process, she says. “We don’t know what we’re buying and to me that is unforgivable,” Thixton says.

In 2019 the FDA cited this Valley Proteins plant in Virginia for failing to remove Pentobarbital. The plant “produces animal food ingredients distributed to animal food manufacturers,” the report says.

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We checked, and Valley Proteins has a location here, on Jacksonville’s Westside. It wasn’t linked to this complaint but didn’t return our request for comment, either.

In Valley Protein’s response to the FDA, it said Pentobarbital is an “unavoidable contaminant not known to present a health hazard.” Dr. Stacey disagrees, saying, “this is pretty much the worst thing I can think of to be in pet food.”

The North American Renderers Association said in a statement, “if there is any trace of any euthanasia drug in an animal, it cannot be sent to rendering.” But while the FDA regulates the process, advocates like Thixton say it doesn’t always take action against violators. The FDA declined an interview.

Meanwhile, pet owners like Nikki just want to see stricter regulations, saying, “it’s very frustrating because I don’t want anybody to have to go through what I went through.”

The FDA is monitoring for reports of any pet illnesses associated with pentobarbital contamination in these products. Consumers can report complaints about this and other pet food products electronically through the Safety Reporting Portal or by calling their local FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators.