Pentobarbital in Pet Food: What is it and how does it get there?

In light of the most recent pet food recall I wanted to take a little time to talk about a chemical that has popped up in not one but two recent pet food recalls: Pentobarbital.


There’s what in where?!?!

Let’s start with “What is Pentobarbital?” Pentobarbital is a drug that in low doses can cause sedation and drowsiness and in high doses can cause respiratory failure and death. Its primary use in veterinary medicine is as a euthanasia solution for all types of animals and it is not an approved ingredient in pet foods and is considered an illegal “adulterant” in pet food.

What’s in Place To Stop It From Actually Getting Into Pet Food? According to the USDA regulations for human foods, any “Product found to contain violative levels of residues is considered adulterated and is subject to condemnation”. Meaning meat or meat products that have drug residues or potentially deleterious (to people) compounds are condemned and prevented from entering the human food supply. That does not mean that it automatically goes into pet foods though.  The AAFCO Model Bill and Guidelines used for pet food manufacturing reference the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations of the Food and Drug Administration Sec. 402 [342] to help ensure pet food ingredient quality and safety.

The actual wording of the FDA regulation …


Sec. 402 [342]

A food shall be deemed to be adulterated –

(a) Poisonous, insanitary, etc., ingredients

(1) If it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance such food shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in such food does not ordinarily render it injurious to health”

Because Pentobarbital is considered a compound that is “injurious to health” even at low levels animals euthanized with Pentobarbital are not allowed to be used in pet food manufacturing.

So How Could It Get Into Pet Food?? In the United States, food animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats) must be healthy enough to walk into a slaughter facility and any animal that is unable to walk (is “down”) or shows signs of illness must be individually inspected and cleared before and after slaughter to ensure that it is safe for the human food supply. FYI – just about everything in pet food is considered a “by-product” of the human food supply chain so human health safety is always the first check-point. For any of my really keen readers, more information about USDA animal inspections can be found here. Animals that are not healthy enough for traditional slaughter methods (ironic I know) can be humanely euthanized (i.e. injected with Pentobarbital) and their remains segregated to prevent them from getting into any food supplies. And again, Pentobarbital is not an approved ingredient in pet foods and is considered an illegal “adulterant”, so the short answer is that it shouldn’t.

So How Did It Get There??? The only way for detectable levels of Pentobarbital to be found in pet foods is through inclusion of animals (animals plural, as in probably more than one) that were killed by use of this euthanasia solution. A survey of dry dog foods sold in the Maryland area and published in 2002 by FDA-Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) found low levels of Pentobarbital in some of the foods tested, but it was in the part per billion (ppb) not percentages (% = parts per hundred). The levels in the dog foods tested  were well below what would be considered acutely toxic or harmful to dogs, but because of the concern that chronic low dose exposure could become harmful if ingested daily for years, many pet food manufacturers (including Big Pet Food) began testing for and excluding animal products with detectable Pentobarbital levels.

You Didn’t Answer the Question, How Did Pentobarbital Get Into the Food???? That I don’t know for sure, but the FDA-CVM released a statement today on their preliminary finding related to the first recall. It looks like the raw beef supplier was using a slaughter facility that was not following USDA protocols. If we combine that with an absence of quality and safety testing from the manufacturer or raw material supplier on that raw beef as it come in, then we have the perfect combination of safety failures to result in potential harm to our companion dogs and cats.

How Can I Trust My Pet Food?????  All of the large and many of the medium to small-sized pet food manufacturers have regular and enforced Quality Control standards.  Mistakes happen, but if the pet food/treat manufacturer has established and enforced Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) protocols in place a situation like this would have been found and prevented before the contaminated meat found its way into the pet food supply. These types of manufacturing checks and balances are designed to keep our companion animal’s (and our own) food safe, but they only work if the companies involved uses and enforces them. If a pet food manufacturer does not conduct any inspection or testing of the raw materials they receive, that manufacturer is relying on the integrity of their raw material supplier to provide the ingredients ordered. If that raw material supplier is in turn not routinely inspecting or testing animal products from the slaughterhouses and rendering facilities they work with then nobody in that pet food company really knows what is going into the foods that bare their name.

There are companies big and small out in the pet food marketplace that have a commitment to health and wellness, not just profit. Those pet food manufacturers are committed to producing high-quality pet foods and will inspect and test their raw materials before they are mixed into a food and will sample and test the finished products before and after they go to market. It is important to know not only who makes your dog or cat’s food, but also if they are doing it the right way.


Gratuitous cat picture, because cats.

Happy Feeding!





4 thoughts on “Pentobarbital in Pet Food: What is it and how does it get there?

  1. What happens to the millions of pets euthanized and I saw they go to rendering plants which take tumors etc etc from slaughtering and products from restaurants and spoiled meat from grocery stores. ???


    • Hi Greg,

      There are fairly strict regulations about what can and can’t go into pet foods (though not as stringently enforced by government regulators as I think they should be) and a lot of misunderstanding about the pet food industry as a whole.

      I think your question is about the rendering process specifically and how that relates to pet food ingredients. The USDA has specific guidelines for rendering plants and divides rendering into two categories: edible rendering (often integrated USDA-inspected slaughter/rendering facilities) and inedible rendering (often independent sites that will take animal products from a variety of different sources).

      Edible rendering (what is used in pet foods and people foods) is what is done to the parts of food animals (beef, pork, goat, lamb, chicken, turkey, and duck) that are safe to eat but do not make the grade for use as a whole meat item for human or pet foods. Edible rendering is used to produce solid and liquid fats (called tallow and grease) and to make protein and mineral rich “meat and bone meal” for pet foods. If a combination of food animals (such as beef, pork and sheep) is used to make a meat and bone meal than the resultant ingredient on a pet food label would say “meat and bone meal” other wise it would be named for the specific animal used (e.g., beef meal, chicken meal, etc). Pentobarbital-euthanized farm animals are specifically excluded from edible rendering as this drug does not change with heat processing and can still be harmful if ingested; those animals would go into inedible rendering. Tumors could potentially be used in an edible render as long as the tumor was considered “non-injurious to health”; I wouldn’t want to see it on my dinner plate but it would just get cooked down to protein and fat anyway.

      Inedible (i.e. non-people or pet food) rendering on the other hand can include restaurant and grocery store waste, euthanized farm animals, dead and diseased farm animals, and yes, potentially euthanized dogs and cats depending on how the kill shelter has arranged for handling of their animal remains. Reports and rumors of euthanized dogs and cats ending up in pet foods are 20 years old now and were only that, rumors and innuendo. But after those allegations were levied the FDA-CVM conducted their pentobarbital survey (done in 1998-1999 and published in 2002) and while they did find trace levels of pentobarbital in dry dog foods that included “meat and bone meal” on their ingredient lists, this was from food animals exclusively and not dogs and cats. They specifically looked for dog and cat DNA and did not find any in any food tested. After these consumer concerns and the FDA-CVM report, reputable pet food manufacturers that weren’t already testing their raw materials for pentobarbital and dog and cat DNA, began doing so, with a zero tolerance on each. I also don’t know of any kill shelter that would sell their euthanized animals to a rendering facility for dog and cats to even to end up in an inedible rendered product. My understanding from working with shelters and having colleague who work at shelters is that animals that don’t find homes and have to be euthanized are cremated, not sold to a rendering factory.

      Maybe there are less reputable companies that cheat and use banned products in their raw materials or pet foods hoping no one would find out, but it wouldn’t be the larger companies I would worry about. Not only would they be breaking the law, but would be a horrible PR blow if/when a whistle blower spoke out. The bigger a company is, the more they have to loose.



  2. Not sure what the source of the drug was in this case, but I am sure that it did not come from an inspected meat slaughter facility. If an animal is condemned prior to slaughter at a meat plant, it is not euthanized with drugs. Anything that goes to rendering at an inspected meat plant should be free from drug residues. It certainly does not receive any drugs at the facility. This case is most likely related to an animal that was previously sedated or euthanized somewhere with drugs and then transported to an independent renderer who did not know that they had received an animal with drugs on board. This would have no doubt been a violation of the contract between the rendering company and the firm that supplied the animal with drugs on board which should never happen.


    • Agreed, Barney. One area that pet food manufactures can get themselves into trouble is whether they monitor and enforce quality control standards on their raw material suppliers. The FDA has a zero tolerance level for pentobarbital in pet food, but some individual pet food manufacturers may be a bit too lax on enforcing the rules on their suppliers and contaminated products will slip.


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