A University of Cambridge investigation has uncovered that in the UK, 77% of raw pheasant dog food samples examined contained lead levels surpassing legal thresholds, some with mean concentrations up to 245 times over the limit. The study warns that these levels could constitute substantial health threats to dogs, particularly puppies, given the harmful impact of lead on the nervous system.
In their research, the team examined unprocessed pheasant dog food samples and found that an alarming number of these samples carried high lead levels. Regular consumption of such food could potentially jeopardize the health of dogs.
Lead is a harmful metal that can detrimentally affect the body systems of humans and animals, with the nervous system being especially vulnerable. Despite the potential risk to animals from high dietary lead levels, the use of lead shot for hunting terrestrial game birds, including pheasants, remains legal in the UK. While the majority of these pheasants are consumed by humans, some find their way into pet food.
In their study, Cambridge researchers scrutinized 90 samples from three different raw pheasant dog food products sourced from the UK. They found an alarming 77% of the samples contained lead levels that exceeded the maximum residue level (MRL) legally allowed in animal feed. The average lead concentrations in these products were approximately 245, 135, and 49 times the MRL.
Their findings were recently published in the Ambio journal.
“We knew that lead levels in pheasant meat sold for human consumption often significantly exceed those allowed in other meats such as chicken, beef, or pork,” said Professor Debbie Pain from Cambridge’s Zoology Department, the lead author of the study. “Yet we were taken aback by the fact that lead concentrations in raw pheasant dog food products were incredibly high.”
The study revealed that the average lead concentration in the raw pheasant dog food was 34 times that reported in pheasant meat sold for human consumption. This could be because raw pheasant meat is usually ground up for dog food, while whole birds or pheasant breasts are generally sold for human consumption. This grinding process may fragment lead shot, increasing the quantity of small lead particles in the meat, and thereby enhancing the potential for lead absorption into the bloodstream.
Researchers warn that dogs consuming food with such high concentrations of lead, particularly if it is their main or frequent diet, are at health risk. Puppies are at an especially high risk, as young animals tend to absorb more lead and their developing nervous system is significantly impacted by lead.
Five pheasant-based dog food products were tested, including three raw meat products, a dried pheasant and partridge product, and a processed tinned pheasant and goose-based product. Additionally, three equivalent chicken-based pet food products (raw meat, dried, and processed) were also assessed.
Besides the raw pheasant dog food, lead levels above the MRL were identified in some samples of the dried pheasant-based product, although the average concentration was significantly lower than in the raw products. None of the chicken-based or the tinned pheasant and goose-based products contained unacceptable lead levels.
With the growing popularity of raw meat diets for pets in the UK—a country with an estimated 13 million dogs and 12 million cats—researchers found that raw dog food containing pheasant meat is widely available. Raw pheasant pet food was offered by 34% of the 50 online raw pet food suppliers examined, and 71% of these suppliers indicated that the meat may contain shot.
“Given the incredibly high lead concentrations in most samples from three randomly selected raw pheasant pet food products, and our recent findings showing 94% of pheasants are shot with lead, it suggests this problem extends far beyond just these three products,” said study co-author Professor Rhys Green. “Nonetheless, some producers may source pheasants not shot with lead, and owners could inquire about this when purchasing pet food.”
Research into shot types in pheasants sold for human consumption is part of an overall investigation assessing the effectiveness of a UK voluntary ban on lead shotgun ammunition for shooting wild quarry. This ban is being phased in over a five-year period starting from February 2020, with nine major shooting organizations committing to it for sustainability reasons, wildlife and environmental concerns, and to ensure a market for the healthiest game products.
Cambridge researchers have regularly found that compliance with the voluntary ban is low, consistent with other studies on voluntary bans. However, a total ban in Denmark has proven highly effective.
The UK REACH Chemicals Regulation is currently contemplating a ban on the sale and use of lead gunshot, along with restrictions on lead bullets.
This research was made possible by funding from Wild Justice for the analytical costs. The study, “Lead concentrations in commercial dog food containing pheasant in the UK” was published in Ambio on 3 May 2023.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Lead Levels in Dog Food
Q: What did the study reveal about raw pheasant dog food in the UK?
A: The study found that 77% of tested samples of raw pheasant dog food products in the UK contained lead levels exceeding legal limits. The concentrations were significantly higher, up to 245 times the limit, posing health risks to dogs, especially puppies.
Q: What are the potential health risks associated with consuming raw pheasant dog food?
A: Dogs, especially puppies, consuming raw pheasant dog food with high lead concentrations are at risk of harm to their health. Lead can have toxic effects on the nervous system, and young animals tend to absorb more lead than adults. The developing nervous system is particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of lead.
Q: Why is the use of lead shot for hunting still legal in the UK?
A: Although the study highlights the potential risk to animal welfare from high dietary lead levels, the use of lead shot for hunting land-dwelling game birds, like pheasants, is still lawful in the UK. While most pheasants are consumed by humans, a portion also ends up in pet food.
Q: Are there alternative options for sourcing pheasants not shot with lead for pet food?
A: Some producers may source pheasants that have not been shot with lead for pet food. Pet owners could inquire about this when purchasing raw pheasant pet food to ensure safer alternatives for their pets.
Q: Are other types of pet food affected by lead contamination?
A: The study also identified lead levels above the permitted limits in some samples of dried pheasant-based pet food. However, chicken-based products and tinned pheasant and goose-based products did not contain unacceptable lead levels.
Q: Is there a ban on lead gunshot and bullets being considered in the UK?
A: A ban on the sale and use of lead gunshot, along with restrictions on lead bullets, is currently being considered under the UK REACH Chemicals Regulation. This is part of an effort to address the issue of lead contamination and ensure safer products for animals and the environment.
More about Lead Levels in Dog Food
- Study: “Lead concentrations in commercial dogfood containing pheasant in the UK” – Link
- University of Cambridge – Link
- Ambio journal – Link
- UK REACH Chemicals Regulation – Link
- Wild Justice – Link