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Protein tests to diagnose pet food-poisoned dogs


While dogs keep dying from eating pet food tainted with aflatoxin, Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is announcing it has developed protein tests that accurately indicate a dog’s liver failure caused by the toxin.

In late December, some dogs from the Eastern and Southeastern United States have become either seriously ill or have died after eating dog food manufactured by Diamond Pet Foods. The dog food was tainted with aflatoxin. About 17 severe cases of aflatoxin poisoning came to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.

The Protein C Activity Assay -- a human protein test that was modified at Cornell over the past three years for animal use -- is one of several tests Cornell veterinarians have been using to detect liver damage in seriously poisoned dogs. The blood test results are available within a day. Aflatoxin curtails the production of cholesterol and many proteins that profoundly affect blood clotting.

The Protein C Activity Assay indicates levels of protein C made by the liver. Dogs poisoned with aflatoxin have only 10 to 15 percent of normal amounts of protein C, says Marjory Brooks, DVM, of Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center. "A progressive fall in protein C levels appears to be a sensitive indicator," Brooks says. This test panel including protein C is only available at Cornell. For testing, veterinarians draw blood from the dog and send it overnight to Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center.

For detection of seriously affected dogs, Sharon Center, DVM, Cornell professor of veterinary medicine who specializes in liver function and disease, says a combination of tests should be administered. She suggests testing for the liver enzyme ALT to detect damage to the liver, serum cholesterol and total bilirubin concentration (bilirubin examines for jaundice) and the activity of the anticoagulant proteins antithrombin III (ATIII) and protein C.

Even though Diamond, Country Value and Professional dog food brands have been recalled for containing highly toxic aflatoxins, the tainted food has caused at least 100 dog deaths nationally in recent weeks, say Cornell veterinarians, who are growing increasingly concerned about a lack of public awareness about the problem. Some consumers and kennels remain unaware of the tainted pet food problem, they say, and as a result, dogs around the nation, and possibly in more than two dozen other countries, are continuing to be fed food containing a lethal toxin. (See related story.)

The Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine is continually updating its Web site ( to keep the public and veterinarians informed as new information on the poisonings (such as the effectiveness of the Protein C Activity Assay) emerge. It also is analyzing blood and liver samples from sick dogs around the country, testing suspected dog food, conducting necropsies and examining as many samples of liver tissue as possible from deceased dogs to confirm causes of death, tracking dogs that have died and following up on the health of dogs that have survived the food poisoning -- all of this in an effort to assess the problem, help develop solutions and get useful information to veterinary professionals and the public.

Blood, tissue, liver and food samples can be sent to the Animal Health Diagnostic Center, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, phone (607) 253-3900.

To report animals that might have died recently from the food poisoning, send an e-mail to, and Cornell researchers will follow up to gather more information.

Blaine P. Friedlander Jr. | EurekAlert!
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