Mad Cow Disease: Are Your Pets at Risk?

As you know, at lot has been discussed about Mad Cow Disease (MCD) in the news in recent months. Until the discovery of an infected cow in the US, this was always considered a “foreign” disease with little chance of developing in our country. Unfortunately, the discovery of the infected cow now shows that this disease is something we need to deal with as well.

I’ve received questions from pet owners who are worried about their pets possibly contracting the disease. Is this possible? Are their fears irrational, or should dog and cat owners be concerned about Mad Cow Disease causing problems in their pets? Should you be concerned about the health of your pet as well as your own?”

First, let me say that I’m not really surprised that Mad Cow Disease (MCD, also called bovine spongioform encephalopathy or BSE) has finally been seen in the US. Our food supply is “generally safe,” as meat intended for human consumption must pass USDA inspection by food health veterinarians who inspect the meat at the point of slaughter. Even though the infected cow came from Canada, it is certainly possible that a US cow could just as well have been the culprit, as our detection systems for this disease is, according to some experts, not as good as it needs to be. Due to the worldwide distribution of this horrible condition, it was only a matter of time regardless of the controls we have on food inspection that MCD would be detected.

Mad Cow Disease is caused by protein particles called prions. These prions are very resistant to destruction and survive anything and everything, including freezing, heating, pressure, and irradiation. They concentrate in the nervous tissue (brain and spinal cord) of infected animals. Death comes about over time as “holes” develop in the brain, giving it a spongy appearance (hence the medical term of spongiopathy.)

While it is vitally important that we do all we can to keep MCD out of our country, thankfully the number of people with the disease worldwide is still small. Since it is such a horrible condition with no cure, steps (such as completely banning the practice of feeding any slaughterhouse waste back to livestock, and testing every animal before it is eaten ) must be applied and followed worldwide. A move away from feedlots, while controversial and not politically popular, and towards range or grass feeding of ruminants and other food animals would also be helpful (and improve the fatty acid content of the meat we eat.)

Mad Cow Disease is even more unlikely to affect dogs and cats, although theoretically possible (although so far cats but not dogs appear susceptible to MCD.) To date I’ve never seen any credible reports of this in recent years in pets in the US. However, in my opinion, there is a greater chance of MCD affecting our pets than ourselves. Why? Because most pet foods do not contain the healthiest of ingredients. Many brands of food contain ingredients such as animal by-products, meat by-products, and meat and bone meal. These are the ingredients most likely to contain nervous tissue (brain and spinal cord) of cattle. And since so many pet foods contain these less-than-healthy ingredients, cattle (and other infected ruminants such as sheep and deer) infected with Mad Cow Disease can easily and quickly infect our pet food supply (earlier this year one Canadian manufacturer recalled dog food that contained rendered parts from an infected cow.)

What’s the solution? Simple. First, whenever possible, pet owners can prepare nutritious homemade recipes for their pets, which will totally prevent MCD in their pets. Second, if preparing food at home is not possible, learning to read the label on the pet’s food will allow the pet owner to choose foods that do not contain potentially infected material. Pet owners who choose natural diets containing whole meats without by-products will minimize chances of the food containing infected ingredients.

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Written by Shawn Messonnier DVM

Explore Wellness in 2021