Dogs & Mad Cow Disease

mad cow disease dogs

Mad Cow disease has reared it’s ugly head in North America. So, what’s being done to ensure your dog is safe?

Up until a few years ago, experts assured us that Mad Cow Disease would never rear its ugly head in North America. In May 2015, however, researchers found that an eight-year-old cow in Alberta, Canada, had indeed succumbed to bovine spongiform encephelapy. Officials admitted with embarrassment that, although the cow had died in January, the brain was not tested until four months later because the cause of death pointed to pneumonia and that made it low priority. Happily, the animal did not make it into the human food chain since the abattoir deemed it a “Downer”or 4-D (dead, dying, diseased, disabled) cow. Instead, she went to a rendering plant where her diseased remains appeared to end up in low price commercial dry dog food.

According to a spokeperson at the Food Inspection Agency, the pet food manufacturer, Champion Pet Foods, “voluntarily recalled the pet food in the U.S. in conjunction with FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standards” and also pulled the kibble, produced for four different brand names in late February to mid-March) from the shelves in Canada. Government spokespeople on both sides of the border were quick to point out that canines do not contract the disease so their people need not worry. Cats, on the other hand, can contract a feline version of the disease and U.K. vets have attributed more than 100 deaths to feline spongiform encephalopy, with many more suspected.

In the meantime, borders were closed to Canadian beef and almost 2,000 Albertan cattle met the same fate as the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in the U.K. in the 1990s. Though none of the other cows tested positive, it’s impossible to determine the health status of cows from the suspect herds who were previously slaughtered. Five bulls, for instance, who officials connected to the diseased cow, were purchased by a rancher in Montana and subsequently slaughtered without the benefit of testing. No one seems to know what happened to the carcasses. Did they end up in pet food too? The incident raises a number of questions and gives us new reason to be mindful of the quality of diet we feed our animals.

The incident raises a number of questions and gives us new reason to be mindful of the quality of diet we feed our animals.

What is Mad Cow Disease?

The disease, first recognized as scrapie in sheep, has existed for hundreds of years. But only in the 1980s did scientists in the U.K. discover that the disease could jump from one species to another. Cattle, who for years had been fed high protein animal feed consisting of sheep and other animal parts, started showing signs of Mad Cow Disease. Cats in the U.K. contracted the disease (to date the U.K. reports 100 confirmed cases but vets suspect there are far more) and zoo animals, including a lion, bison, cheetahs, tigers and eland died from Mad Cow Disease as well. In North America, reports elk wasting disease and a similar disease in deer continue to come in. Most frightening of all, humans have developed new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a disease linked specifically to eating contaminated beef.

To prevent the tragedy suffered in Europe, both American and Canadian governments changed animal feed policies in 1997 to halt the practice of feeding ruminants to ruminants

Fast Facts

• Since 1990, Mad Cow Disease has been a reportable disease in Canada. This means that any suspected case must be reported to a federal veterinarian.
• We have a ruminant-to-ruminant feeding ban. This means that Canada does not allow the rendered carcasses of ruminants – such as sheep, goats, cattle, deer and elk – and mink to be fed to ruminants. This eliminates the major transmission vector of Mad Cow Disease and other diseases.
• Canada also has the Canadian Cattle Identification Program for cattle and bison, making it possible to trace individual animal movements from the herd of origin to slaughter.
• Canada’s Mad Cow Disease surveillance system doubles the rate recommended testing rate set by international standards. Since 1993, Canada has tested approximately 10,000 animals.
• The current Canadian Mad Cow Disease import policy restricts animals and animal products from entering Canada from countries that are known to have Mad Cow Disease.
• We have control and eradication program for both chronic wasting disease and scrapie (other TSEs) in Canada.

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Veterinarian Dr. Shawn Messonnier wrote The Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats, The Natural Vet's Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog. He's the pet care expert for Martha Stewart Living's "Dr. Shawn — The Natural Vet" on Sirius Satellite Radio, and creator of Dr. Shawn's Pet Organics. His practice, Paws & Claws Animal Hospital (, is in Plano, Texas.