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Your Animal Is Sick. Was It Something They Ate? Vet-LIRN May Be Able to Help


Your family’s beloved pet has gotten sick, and you and your veterinarian are working together to find the cause. While there are many potential causes, one possibility you may discuss with your veterinarian is whether the illness could be linked to your pet's food. 

Vet-LIRN (Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network), a program from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), is a  network that connects laboratories around the country looking for clues that might solve animal illness mysteries related to animal foods or animal drugs. Vet-LIRN allows the FDA to partner with state and university Diagnostic Laboratories.

Just as the FDA investigates foodborne illnesses for human food, Vet-LIRN helps investigate those for animal foods. Vet-LIRN typically works with animal owners and their veterinarians to investigate cases of potential foodborne illnesses, most often in pets.  If a food or treat is found to carry dangerous bacteria or contain harmful ingredients or other contaminants, Vet-LIRN may investigate further. Some investigations have explored nutritional imbalances linked to illness. 

When people get sick, their health care providers may do tests and then provide information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the cause of the illness. Vet-LIRN acts like a CDC for animals by investigating animal illnesses. What Vet-LIRN learns through its work helps to protect the health of your animal—and perhaps your family—as well. For example, animals can contract pathogens such as Salmonella from the food they eat without getting sick; however the germs can spread to people who handle contaminated food or stool.

How Does Vet-LIRN Work?

The process starts when you or your veterinarian reports a food or drug related illness to the FDA. Simply search  “Report a Problem to the FDA”  to find the phone number or the website for FDA’s Safety Reporting Portal.

FDA veterinarians review each complaint and determine whether it could be related to a product that the FDA regulates, like animal food or drugs. They then decide whether the case should be referred to Vet-LIRN for follow up. If your case is referred, Vet-LIRN may contact you for more information. While each investigation is tailored to the case at hand, in general, Vet-LIRN reviews the pet’s medical records, including a history of what they ate. Vet-LIRN may ask for food samples (e.g. hay, seed, kibble, treats, etc.), so be sure to save the samples and any pertinent information about the food, such as the brand, variety, flavor and lot code after submitting your complaint. 

In addition to reviewing any test results already done by your veterinarian, Vet-LIRN may ask your veterinarian to collect diagnostic samples (blood, urine, and/or tissue). In these cases: 

  • Vet-LIRN can cover certain testing costs when investigating the case. 
  • Vet-LIRN tests the sample at one of its 46 labs across the U.S. and Canada and reports the findings to the attending veterinarian to share with the owner. 
  • If Vet-LIRN staff determine that further FDA regulatory testing is needed, they may request that owners hold any open or unopened food product so that they can test it. In that case, a coordinator from the FDA office in your district will contact the owner directly.

Why Report an Adverse Event to Vet-LIRN? 

CVM protects animal health by regulating animal drugs and animal food (including treats), and food additives. CVM is responsible for overseeing that animal food manufacturers produce food that is safe and accurately labeled, as well as produced in a sanitary manner. 

Despite the Center’s regulatory measures, some animal foods do get contaminated or contain dangerous ingredients not listed on the ingredient list. To understand the important role Vet-LIRN plays in such cases, consider how Vet-LIRN investigated an animal food-related illness involving a commercial pet food that was contaminated with aflatoxin. 

The case started with a veterinarian reporting to CVM about potential aflatoxicosis in six dogs, including three deaths. This report was forwarded to Vet-LIRN, who began an investigation, including collecting medical records and test results. Concurrently, Vet-LIRN was notified by a member laboratory about additional deaths in dogs that consumed the same brand of dog food manufactured at the same location. Testing from both cases found aflatoxin in high concentrations. Vet-LIRN collaborated with FDA-CVM and state regulatory partners to identify the source of the aflatoxin contamination, and a recall was quickly initiated, which likely saved the lives of many other pets.

No one wants to imagine the worst happening, but if it does and your animal dies, you may want to know the cause. By reporting your experiences with potential animal food issues and allowing Vet-LIRN to work on your case, you may learn more about what may have caused your animal's illness, including whether the food contributed. Additionally, you may help prevent other pets from getting sick.

In every case, your information adds to the FDA’s body of knowledge about animal food and how it is made and marketed. In some cases the findings may lead to inspections or recalls.

Most of Vet-LIRN’s work is with pets.

But Vet-LIRN has also investigated birds, fish, spiders, cows—any type of animal that eats any food the FDA regulates.” Whether it’s your dog or your iguana that gets sick, the FDA wants to make sure it wasn’t caused by their food. But  if it was, the FDA has the information needed to take appropriate actions.

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