Until there's an all clear on contamination, avoid jerky treats

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Q: You've written about jerky treats being bad for pets, so what else should I give my dog as a treat? He's accustomed to getting his jerky at night before bedtime. -- C.J., Las Vegas

Q: I'm very angry and mistrusting of pet food companies now. What do I give my dog as a treat now that the FDA has said jerky treats have caused so many deaths? -- C.C., Buffalo, New York

A: I can't stress this enough: Stop feeding jerky treats to your pets. End of story. There are countless safe manufactured treats, available in all shapes and sizes, not to mention healthy snacks from your own refrigerator, such as small slices of apple or banana, blueberries or mini carrots. Also safe (as far as we know) are jerky treats made in the U.S.

While it's true that most pets scarf down jerky without any ill effects, according to a recent statement from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, since 2007 about 3,600 dogs and 10 cats have likely been sickened by tainted jerky treats, and nearly 600 pets have died. Why take that chance?

Some jerky products remain unavailable from a previous recall, however others continue to be sold, which is wrong; these products should be withdrawn until the FDA is confident that the problem, which apparently originates in China, is rectified.

I've received lots of email from pet owners insisting that their pets "need" jerky treats. That's rubbish. Pets will look forward to anything that smells great (from their perspective). Jerky treats aren't the only game in town. In fact, I suggest you toss any opened jerky treats made in China in the (pet-proof) trash, and if a package is unopened, return it to the retailer to exchange for a safer treat.

Q: Our Labrador Retriever spends a lot of time outside and now he's itching a lot. We've tried several grain-free foods, plus the special duck and potato diet from Natural Balance (to check for food allergies). We also put fish capsules in the dog's food. Nothing has helped. How can we stop the itching? -- J.C.S., Cyberspace

A: First, rule out fleas. Even a few flea bites can cause a whopping allergic response, says Dr. Dunbar Gram, a veterinary dermatologist and associate professor dermatology at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Gainesville.

"There is no one lab test to determine if a dog has a food allergy," he says.

For some individual dogs, the types of special diets you've tried can make a big difference. The trick is that the dog must maintain the diet for two consecutive months without any additional treats. Most often, there's more impressive success rate using a truly hypoallergenic novel protein or hydrolyzed protein diet; both are available only by prescription.

The bad news is, the change of diet could work and you'd never know it. That's because about 75 percent of dogs with food allergies also have some airborne allergies. The good news is, a veterinarian with experience dealing with allergic pets, or a veterinary dermatologist, can figure all this out, and ultimately help your dog.

Q: My dog trainer says I should take Charlie to our local dog park as often as possible. The problem with that is, Charlie just doesn't seem to have a good time. He loves to be with me, and sticks very close. "That's the point," says the trainer. "It's a way for Charlie to be a dog with other dogs." Is it worth forcing him? -- T.J., San Diego, CA

A: I'm not sure how you force a dog to be happy, any more than you can force a person to be happy. Cheryl Smith, author of "Visiting the Dog Park: Having Fun, Staying Safe" (Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee WA, 2007; $4.99) agrees.

"Dog parks aren't for all dogs," she notes. "We had a dog just like this dog. The dog was wonderful around other people, but just didn't care much for other dogs. I suppose that's like people who like dogs, but don't care for other people. In any case, just because you take your dog to the dog park -- and force the issue -- it's not likely to change how the dog feels."

Smith, of Port Angeles, WA, adds, "Anyway, what's most important is the relationship your dog has with you and your family."

Q: One of our cats likes to chew on boxes and the corners of books and papers. The other prefers to munch on lace, string, yarn and thread. Both cats are almost 14 years old. How can I stop this behavior? -- D.K., Cyberspace

A: It's normal for cats to nibble on the corners of lots of objects. What isn't normal is when cats actually ingest large pieces of boxes, books or paper. I'm very concerned about cats chewing on lace, string, yarn and thread because if that's ingested, it could create an obstruction that could require surgery.

If a cat is eating oddball items, first remove the objects. During the holiday season in particular, be aware that ribbon and tinsel are interesting to many cats and potentially dangerous.

Offer appropriate alternative items for your cat to chew on, such as freeze-dried meats (available at many pet stores and online); C.E.T. chews (available through veterinary offices and online) stuffed inside a small Kong toy for small dogs (at pet stores and online); and cat grasses (available at many supermarkets, pet stores and online).

Boredom could be an issue, Give your cats more to do while you're away. Rotate their toys. Leave out 10 percent of their food around the house, perhaps hidden in various places for the cats to search out, or in treat dispensing toys like the Eggsersizer or SlimCat.

However, I also wonder if what you describe are new behaviors. After all these years, why now? Definitely rule out a GI problem or some other medical issue.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e--mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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