(LifeWire) -- The recent announcement by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that two brands of Chinese-made dog treats contained traces of the chemical agent melamine gives pet owners new cause to worry about what their animals are eating.
As these fido fashions show, many people consider their pets part of the family.
Since Canadian-based manufacturer Menu Foods recalled dog and cat food products containing melamine on March 16, following reports of animal illness and death, thousands of food products for cats, dogs, fish and ferrets -- from a number of manufacturers -- have wound up on the Food and Drug Administration's recall list.
While the FDA continues to investigate melamine's link to the animal deaths, the Wal-Mart announcement on August 21 has heightened consumer awareness about pet food safety and prompted pet owners to re-examine what is an appropriate diet for their animals.
Ensuring a safe diet
Here are steps pet owners can take to help keep their animals safe from tainted food.
• Check all the store-bought foods you are feeding your pets against a comprehensive list of recalled food products. The American Veterinary Medical Association's list is updated frequently and sorted by animal type and brand.
• Get rid of any foods found on the list; you can find proper methods for disposal from the pet food manufacturer. More information is avaliable from the American Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals. The FDA found melamine "in samples of pet food and in the wheat gluten used as an ingredient in the pet food."
• Be on the look out for symptoms. If your pet has ingested contaminated food, some general symptoms are loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. In the case of the pet food recalls this past spring, the melamine "affected the urinary system, causing dysfunction of the kidneys," says Dr. Roger Mahr, veterinarian and past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "The symptoms that came with that were increased urination, drinking excessive water, lethargy and dehydration." Mahr says that any of these symptoms is enough reason to contact your veterinarian.
Even if you don't witness these symptoms, if your pet has eaten any of the foods on the recall list, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine recommends taking the animal to a veterinarian to have its kidney function checked.
How about homemade?
Homemade pet food is a good alternative as purchasing pet food gets more complicated. But it's not as simple as cooking up some chicken for your kitty.
"Any change in diets should be done cautiously because animals do well on consistent diets, and changing from one diet to another can be upsetting in and of itself," Mahr says. Furthermore, homemade diets don't always meet an animal's nutritional needs, and what's good for a dog may not be good for a cat.
Mahr recommends consulting your veterinarian or a pet nutritionist if you are considering making your own pet food. The American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition may be able to help you locate a pet nutrition expert in your area.
Susan Davis a certified clinical nutritionist in Lake Forest, California, who helps people develop homemade diets, says what she recommends for a 10-year-old senior dog is different from what she recommends for a puppy. Pets with diseases and other health problems also have particular nutritional needs. Some human foods, such as brown rice, lean meats and carrots, are okay to serve pets. But avoid giving animals sweets or junk foods. Some foods, like grapes, raisins, chocolate and mushrooms, are toxic to dogs and cats.
Scrutinizing pet food labels
Davis, who advocates a holistic diet for animals, offers pet owners advice for buying quality, healthy pet food. When reading labels, "the ingredients shouldn't include a lot of chemicals you can't pronounce, like ethoxyquin, which is a potential carcinogen," she says. "Also avoid anything that is called a byproduct or digest, such as fish digest or beef digest."
Try to avoid foods with the additives BHT, BHA and food coloring, Davis says. Look for brands that include canola oil or olive oil rather than animal fat.
The FDA does not consider ethoxyquin, BHT and BHA to pose a health threat to pets. However, the agency has asked pet food companies to voluntarily lower the amount of ethoxyquin they use in their products.
Because ingredients must be listed in weight descending order, look carefully at the label. "A lot of pet foods have fillers like soy, corn or wheat as the first ingredient, but if it is a protein product, the protein source should be the first ingredient," Davis says.
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Joan Shim is a freelance writer and former editor at Pet Product News. E-mail to a friend