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Answers: One More Reason to Ditch Dry Cat Food

Updated: Sunday, June 02, 2019 02:39 PM
Published: Sunday, July 26, 2015 12:44 PM
Written by Guillermo Díaz. MV

I'm new to cat ownership. Recently I adopted two orphan kittens from a local shelter. I took them in for a complete checkup. The veterinarian encouraged me to feed my cats a raw food diet because of the possibility that dry kibble may contain a substance called aflatoxin that could be harmful to my kitties. Can you explain to me what aflatoxins are?

The information this doctor gave to you is correct. It demonstrates she is concerned about the health of your kittens. Aflatoxin is never mentioned on TV commercials for kibble, nor is it uttered by veterinarians who promote and sell commercial pet foods. Perhaps it's because it's a sensitive subject pet food companies don't want you to know about.

Aflatoxins are one of the major groups of mycotoxins that can affect crops. Mycotoxins are the byproducts of the metabolism of molds. Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus grow on corn, peanuts, cottonseed and other types of grain used for human and animal consumption. These fungi can infect grain still in the field and thrive where storage conditions are substandard or when products are stored for extended periods. They can proliferate when grains are stored in humidity greater than 14%, at warm temperatures over 68°F (20°C) and/or if the product is inadequately dried. In order to prevent mycotoxin formation, grains must be kept dry and free of damage and insects. Just a small amount of growth of fungi in grains can produce sufficient moisture from metabolism to allow further growth and aflatoxin formation.¹

Perhaps at this point you are wondering what all of this has to do with the kibble people feed their cats. The main ingredient in most dry cat foods is corn, as well as rice, wheat and barley. It's stuff that has no business in an obligate carnivore's diet. Stuff that's highly susceptible to mold. These molds grow easily and produce potent carcinogens. Aflatoxins are stable. Even the high temperature of kibble production will not destroy or denature them.²

How could aflatoxins affect your kittens? They are primarily hepatotoxic, meaning that they can cause liver damage. There are many types of aflatoxins with different degrees of toxicity. Susceptibility to these toxins varies with an animal's species, breed, age, dose, length of exposure and nutritional status. Young animals are the most susceptible. Aflatoxins are immunosuppressive, teratogenic and mutagenic. After ingestion, they are absorbed into the bloodstream and taken to the liver where they are metabolized by different types of hepatic enzymes. The final toxic product is a reactive aflatoxin which binds irreversibly to the DNA and RNA of liver cells, turning them into carcinogenic cells leading to necrosis and impairment of normal liver function, bile stasis and liver fibrosis.³

The most common clinical signs of affected animals are:

  • Refusal of food, also known as anorexia
  • Vomiting
  • Immune suppression
  • Jaundice
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Kidney/liver damage
  • Anemia
  • Poor coat condition

Unfortunately, there is no antidote for aflatoxins. The treatment is aimed at decreasing liver stress, providing supportive care and symptom management. Cat owners – and pet owners in general – should avoid any foods containing vegetable cereals and corn or wheat fillers.

The easiest way to achieve this is by feeding a species-appropriate raw cat food diet, no aflatoxins at all!

Here are some facts:

In December, 2005, over one million pounds of dog and cat food manufactured in a South Carolina plant were recalled due to the discovery of mold toxin contamination of the corn-based food. Nineteen different formulation of pet foods were affected and over 100 dogs died.

An article published on Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, showed that The Consumer Council of Hong Kong's recent tests on 39 dry pet products, 20 dog foods and 19 cat foods indicated the presence of aflatoxin B1 in four dog foods and three cat foods. They included popular US food manufacturers.

The Alltech Mycotoxin Management Team carried out a survey of the 2012 world grain harvest. Testing 965 grain samples from around the world, the result showed 98% contaminated with mycotoxins, 93% contaminated with more than one strain and 40% contaminated with over five different mycotoxin strains.

This is my personal experience: Many years ago Popi, my beloved cat, died from hepatic cancer. He was fed dry food only for his entire life. I thought I was doing the best for him. How wrong I was. He seemed fine until he became very ill, stopped eating and developed jaundice. The level of his hepatic enzymes went over the roof. There wasn't much I could do to save his life. Being a vet myself, I couldn't help him.

By writing this article, I want to honor him and thank him for all that I have learned because of his illness. After he passed away, I began doing my homework, researching, reading and interviewing people. That's how I made contact with Feline Nutrition and its founder who kindly invited me to contribute to its educational efforts. Cat nutrition is a matter that isn't taught thoroughly at veterinarian schools around the world. The only cat nutrition education graduate vets receive is sponsored by mega-corporations that produce commercial pet food. They set up fancy seminars with doctors whose recommendations are totally biased in favor of the foods they are paid to represent.

Please do your own research. Your cat deserves much more than the flavored grain-based kibble inside that fancy-colored bag.

Note: Feline Nutrition provides feline health and nutrition information as a public service. Diagnosis and treatment of specific conditions should always be in consultation with your own veterinarian. Feline Nutrition disclaims all warranties and liability related to the veterinary advice and information provided on this site.

Dr. Guillermo Díaz and family, including their four dogs (Leroy, Xica, Moza and Pepa) and six cats (Michalina, Tigger, Vladimir, Yellow, Mongo and Chirusa) moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina in July of 2017, where he expects to continue supporting different animal rescue groups, spread the benefits of raw food for cats and dogs and write articles about nutrition.

1. Simone Aquino and Benedito Corrêa, "Aflatoxins in Pet Foods: A Risk to Special Consumers," Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas/USP, São Paulo, Brazil, Oct 21, 2011.

2. Aquino et al, "Aflatoxins in Pet Foods: A Risk to Special Consumers."

3. Herman J Boermans and Maxwell CK Leung, "Mycotoxins and the Pet Food Industry: Toxicological Evidence and Risk Assessment," International Journal of Food Microbiology 119, 2007, 95-102.

4. KA Stenske, JR Smith, SJ Newman, LB Newman and CA Kirk, "Aflatoxicosis in Dogs and Dealing with Suspected Contaminated Commercial Foods," Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 228, 2006, 1686-1691.

5. "Cancer-causing Toxin Found in Hong Kong Pet Food Sparks Alarm," South China Morning Post, 15 April, 2014.

6. "Mycotoxins – The Hidden Danger in Feed," VetReport.net, Sept 19, 2013.