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Raw pheasant dog food contains lead from shotgun pellets

In a recent study, scientists have found that high levels of lead from shotgun pellets in raw pheasant dog food may pose a serious health risk to dogs. 

The research, published in the journal Ambio, reveals that a significant majority of the tested samples contained lead concentrations exceeding the maximum residue level (MRL) permitted by law in animal feed.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that can have detrimental effects on the body systems of both humans and animals, with the nervous system being especially vulnerable. Despite its harmful nature, lead shot is still legally used for hunting terrestrial gamebirds such as pheasants in the UK. While pheasants are primarily consumed by people, some of these birds also find their way into pet food.

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed 90 samples from three raw pheasant dog food products purchased in the UK. They discovered that 77 percent of the samples had lead concentrations surpassing the MRL allowed in animal feed. The mean lead concentrations of the three products were found to be approximately 245, 135, and 49 times higher than the MRL.

Lead author Professor Debbie Pain from Cambridge’s Zoology Department shared her insights on the study: “We were already aware that lead concentrations in pheasant meat sold for human consumption are often far higher than would be permitted in other meats like chicken, beef or pork. However, we were surprised to find that lead concentrations in raw pheasant dog food products were so much higher.”

The study also revealed that the mean lead concentration in the raw pheasant dog food was 34 times higher than that recently reported in pheasant meat intended for human consumption. The latter is already considered to have excessively high lead levels.

According to the researchers, one potential explanation for the higher lead concentration in dog food could be due to the preparation process. Raw pheasant meat is typically minced for dog food, while whole birds or pheasant breasts are generally sold for human consumption. 

Mincing may fragment the lead shot, leading to an increase in the number of small lead particles within the meat and a greater potential for lead to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Dogs consuming food with high concentrations of lead, particularly if they are fed on it frequently or as their main diet, are at risk of serious health issues. 

Puppies are especially vulnerable, as young animals tend to absorb more lead than full-grown animals, and their developing nervous systems are particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of lead.

In their study, the researchers tested five pheasant-based dog food products: three raw meat products, one dried pheasant and partridge product, and one processed tinned pheasant and goose-based product. They also assessed three equivalent chicken-based pet food products (raw meat, dried, and processed).

The results revealed that, in addition to the raw pheasant dog food, some samples of the dried pheasant-based product had lead levels above the maximum residue level (MRL). However, the mean concentration was much lower than that found in the raw products. None of the samples from the chicken-based products or the tinned pheasant and goose-based product contained unacceptable lead levels.

Raw meat diets for pets have been gaining popularity across the UK, which is home to an estimated 13 million dogs and 12 million cats. The researchers found that raw dog food containing pheasant meat was widely available in the UK. 

Out of the 50 online raw pet food suppliers they examined, 34 percent sold raw pheasant pet food, and 71 percent of those stated that the meat might contain shot.

Co-author Professor Rhys Green commented on the study’s implications: “The fact that most samples from three randomly sampled raw pheasant pet food products had very high lead concentrations, and that our recent research on shot types used to kill pheasants found that 94 percent are shot with lead, suggests that this is a far broader issue than for just these three products. However, some producers may source pheasants that have not been shot with lead, and owners could ask about this when buying pet food.”

The study on shot types in pheasants sold for human consumption is part of a larger body of research assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary ban on lead shotgun ammunition to shoot wild quarry in the UK. This ban is being phased in over a five-year period, starting from February 2020. 

Nine major shooting organizations have committed to this ban for sustainability reasons, considering the impact on wildlife, the environment, and the need to ensure a market for the healthiest game products.

Cambridge scientists have consistently found compliance with the voluntary ban to be low, which aligns with other studies investigating voluntary bans. However, a total ban in Denmark has proven to be very effective. 

The UK is currently considering a ban on the sale and use of lead gunshot under the UK REACH Chemicals Regulation, as well as restrictions on lead bullets.

This study highlights the urgent need for stricter regulations on lead levels in animal feed, as well as the potential hazards associated with the continued use of lead shot in hunting. 

With the health of our pets at stake, it is crucial that we take the necessary steps to reduce their exposure to toxic substances like lead.

More about raw meat diets for pets

Raw meat diets for pets, also known as the BARF (biologically appropriate raw food) diet or raw feeding, have gained popularity among pet owners in recent years.

Proponents of raw meat diets argue that they are more natural and better suited to the dietary needs of dogs and cats, as they are more similar to the diets of their wild ancestors. The typical raw meat diet consists of raw muscle meat, organ meats, bones, fruits, vegetables, and sometimes dairy, eggs, and other supplements.

Advocates of raw meat diets for pets claim several benefits, including:

Improved coat quality

Raw diets may contribute to a shinier, healthier coat due to the higher fat content and bioavailability of nutrients in raw foods.

Healthier teeth and gums

Chewing on raw bones can help scrape off plaque and tartar, promoting better dental health.

Increased energy levels

Raw diets are often richer in proteins and fats, which can provide more energy for active pets.

Better digestion

Proponents argue that raw diets are easier to digest because they contain natural enzymes that assist in the breakdown of food.

Weight management

Raw diets can help pets maintain a healthy weight by providing a more balanced and nutrient-dense diet.

However, raw meat diets also come with several risks and concerns: 

Bacterial contamination

Raw meat may contain harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, which can cause serious illness in both pets and their owners.

Imbalanced nutrition

Homemade raw diets may not provide all the necessary nutrients in the appropriate proportions, leading to deficiencies or imbalances.

Choking hazard

Feeding pets whole bones can pose a choking risk or cause injury to the digestive tract.

Contamination with toxic substances

As seen in the study with lead-contaminated pheasant dog food, raw meat may be contaminated with harmful substances that can adversely affect pets’ health.

Difficulty in preparation

Preparing a well-balanced raw diet can be time-consuming and requires thorough knowledge of pet nutrition.

Pet owners considering a raw meat diet for their pets should consult with a veterinarian or a pet nutrition expert to ensure that the diet is balanced, safe, and appropriate for their pet’s specific needs. 

It is essential to handle raw meat safely, maintain proper hygiene, and monitor pets closely for any signs of illness or adverse reactions.


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