The Jerky Treat Problem Needs More Than a “Natural” Solution

An Oklahoma woman sells homemade treats as an alternative to ones from China, but will this really solve the complex problem of dogs getting sick?


Anyone who reads Dogster regularly should know about the ongoing problem with jerky treats that are made in China. Hundreds of deaths and illnesses have been linked to the treats over the past few years. In May, PetSmart and PetCo stores stopped selling jerky treats from China, a move that many thought was long overdue.

Amidst all the tragedy and worry about jerky treats, there comes what seems to be a genuine feel-good story: Debi Lisle, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, is making and selling homemade dog treats after her own dog, Mocha Marie, died last year. Lisle says she believes Mocha Marie was killed by the treats. Only two weeks before she died, the dog had received a clean bill of health from the vet.

“She was just bigger than life,” Lisle told Tulsa TV station KJRH “She was like a four year old (getting) into everybody’s business, and everybody that met her loved her. When she died suddenly, I just started investigating. The only thing different in her life was the treats.”

The homemade treats came about when Lisle adopted a new dog, Cooper. Cooper is a Labrador/Great Dane mix and has 11 food allergies. To accommodate Cooper’s special needs, Lisle started experimenting in the kitchen. She came up with a batch of treats that worked perfectly, and from there, came up with a business plan for “Cooper’s Kitchen.” She has been selling her homemade treats for a year, in five locations in the Tulsa area.

The story is about as heartwarming as possible. It makes every Frank Capra or Steven Spielberg movie look like hard-bitten noir from the mind of Chester Himes or Horace McCoy. It appeals to the way that Americans like to see ourselves: sturdy, independent-minded types who can build on our own personal tragedies to create something greater.

So here’s where I become Dogster’s biggest spoilsport. (Actually, this is a pretty typical role for me; it’s why they pay me the semi-big bucks.) The jerky treats have been a persistent problem for pet owners, but I’m not sure that Debi Lisle’s homemade treats are a good solution.

The first thing is this: Despite the fact that it has become shorthand for “soul-crushing Orwellian bureaucracy encroaching on our personal freedom,” government regulation can be a good thing. It’s an especially good thing when it’s applied to things you’re putting in your body, or your pets’ bodies. China has such a lousy reputation for the safety of its goods because it has little to no government oversight of manufacturing conditions, and those that exist are poorly enforced. I hope that Lisle’s snacks are complying with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, and not just being churned out in her kitchen. As much as her story appeals to our love of “can-do” spirit, “homemade” does not necessarily equal “healthy.”

The same applies to other aspects of the story. A lot of the selling points of the Cooper’s Kitchen snacks are commonly used catchphrases that have positive associations for people, but should be looked at more closely. Specifically, part of the appeal is that the treats are “natural,” and free of gluten and preservatives. Aren’t these things good for you and your dog? As with most things, the answer is depressingly dull: It depends.

For instance, “natural” is a vague term that can mean a lot of things. A lot of toxins are natural as well as organic, and some things that are very good for you are completely unnatural. The fact that I function from day to day is entirely thanks to unnatural medications that keep me from going into tonic-clonic convulsions. I live in Berkeley, where eating “natural” is practically a sacrament, and it sets my teeth on edge. To judge whether a food or medicine is good for you requires a lot more than knowing whether it’s natural.

As for gluten, that’s another thing that should be challenged on a regular basis. Despite the hype that’s built up over the past few years, for most people, “gluten-free” probably doesn’t mean anything one way or the other. Just this May, a study came out showing that non-celiac gluten sensitivity — the syndrome that’s been driving the “gluten-free” craze — probably doesn’t exist. The study is an excellent example of science working the way it should. It was conducted by Peter Gibson, the very scientist who conducted the original study that purported to show gluten sensitivity in people who didn’t have celiac disease. Despite all the publicity and acclaim that Gibson’s 2011 study got him, he wasn’t satisfied with the results and re-examined them, ultimately disproving his own work. If you or your dog don’t have celiac disease, you can probably have all the gluten you want.

The fact is, there is no simple solution to the problem of jerky treats from China. The problem might not even be China. As Dogster’s own vet, Eric Barchas, writes:

[R]emember that China bashing is highly de rigueur in today’s society. It is possible that most of the dogs have been sickened by Chinese treats simply because most treats are made in China. Also remember that many foods that are “made in the USA” contain ingredients that originated in China. Long story short: no jerky, regardless of where it comes from, should be considered safe.

We also can’t say what treats are safe because we don’t know for sure how many dogs have been sickened or killed by jerky treats, or what the cause is. The FDA’s statement on the subject says that it has tested jerky treats for contamination by salmonella, metals, antibiotics, radiation, pesticides, mold, antiviral medications, rat and rodent poisons, and other toxins, but it has yet to pinpoint a cause. The agency has been able to do only 26 necropsies, but of those, half the dogs had other diseases, such as cancer.

The problem of the jerky treats is obscure and complicated, and although I have no doubts about Debi Lisle’s good intentions and fundamental decency as a human being, homemade treats aren’t necessarily a solution for the problem. They might very well be delicious, and even healthy, but the needs of dogs vary as much as humans, and the fact that treats are natural and homemade doesn’t eliminate the need for caution.

What do you think? Do you give your dog jerky treats? Do you research what you feed your dog? Is going all-natural a solution? Let me know in the comments.


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