Mycotocins Title

Photo Credit: Richard via Flickr

There are some cat food dangers that are pretty obvious. Most people know that dented cat food cans or open cat food bags are a no-no. If you open your cat’s food and it is discolored or there is something growing on it, you would never feed it to you cat. However, there are dangers that are much more subtle. Mycotoxins aren’t visible to the naked eye and they don’t necessarily have a taste or smell.

First A Note About This Post

This post was NOT written as a response to a current crisis. As far as I know, at the writing of this post, there are not any active pet food recalls involving mycotoxins. I decided to write this because I heard about some recalls due to mycotoxins from a few years ago and was interested in the subject. I am not a veterinarian. If you feel that your cat has consumed anything that was contaminated with mycotoxins, call your veterinarian or emergency veterinarian immediately.

Mycotoxins: A Big Word Made Simple

A fungus is a plant-like organism that does not contain chlorophyll, like mushrooms. There are 5.1 million species of fungi known to exist on earth. The word “mold” refers to an estimated 300,000 or more of these fungi.

Like all fungi, since mold does not contain chlorophyll, it can not create it’s own food. Instead, it reaches tiny, dense little roots into it’s surroundings and absorbs nutrients from those surroundings. As the mold metabolizes those nutrients, it creates byproducts called mycotoxins.

Several different mycotoxins have been identified, but it is assumed that there are more in existence. A few of the major mycotoxins include aflatoxins, trichothecenes, fumonisins, and citrinin. Several strains of each of these mycotoxins exist. One species of mold can produce more than one type of mycotoxin.

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Mycotoxins serve an important purpose to the molds that create them. Notably, they kill bacteria. Since bacteria and molds often occupy the same sorts of territories (warm, dark, moist), it benefits the mold to kill off the surrounding bacteria and preserve the area’s nutrients for itself. That being said, antibiotics like penicillin make good use of mycotoxins. There are medical uses for a number of different species of mold and the mycotoxins they produce.

Aflatoxin 2

A fungus that produces aflatoxin.
Photo Credit: Swathi Sridharan via Flickr

Now for the bad part. Mycotoxins are also well known carcingens in both humans and animals. Exposure to mycotoxins is related to cancer and tumors. Aflatoxin is very know for causing delayed onset liver cancer. Cancer can come on up to 10 years or more after exposure! Other medical problems in humans (some are applicable to cats) are also related to mycotoxins including suppression of the immune system, nervous system damage, gastrointestinal problems, and skin problems. Humans often become ill from breathing in mycotoxins in that are in the air of contaminated buildings. Problems with these toxins are far worse in developing countries where corn and grains are staple foods than they are in the US.

Here’s where it really gets ugly. Some people chose to find the good in mycotoxins (antibiotics), but others have used it for its more destructive properties. Mycotoxins have been used in chemical warfare. In the 1970’s a mycotoxin laced substance known as “yellow rain” was used in south-east Asia. It devastated the Hmong people. Later in the 1990’s Iraq was found to have biological weapons containing aflatoxins. These could have induced liver cancer and other diseases of the liver on thousands of people. Dr. Andrew Campbell, MD, a clinical immune toxocologist in Huston, Texas, believes that aflatoxins are more deadly than nerve gas.

Aflatoxins and Cat Food

Maize cobs colonized with Aspergillus

Maize cobs colonized with Aspergillus (a mold that can produce aflatoxins)
Photo Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture via Flickr

Be careful with any cat food that contains corn. If the fact that corn is not a species appropriate food for a cat is not enough to steer you away, perhaps the fact that corn is one of the most commonly aflatoxin contaminated crops will be. The molds that cause the aflatoxins are in the soil and when conditions are very hot and dry, molds that cause aflatoxins can start to spread onto the corn stalks. The molds can grow on the corn before it is harvested and/or after it is harvested while it is being stored (thus the aflatoxin build up). The aflatoxins are very resilient and not affected by the heat or pressure used to process the corn.

Farmers and cat food companies are charged with testing their crops to ensure that they are aflatoxin free. This can be a bit of a tricky task as there can be some plants that are heavily contaminated while some are containment free. Random testing doesn’t always give the most accurate picture. Between 2010 and 2013 there were several cat and dog food recalls due to aflatoxin contamination. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the US and Canada loose about $5 billion annually due to mycotoxins in the feed (including pet food) and livestock industries.

Symptoms of Aflatoxin Poisoning in Cats

Should your cat happen to ingest food from a contaminated bag, call your veterinarian right away. There are a lot of different factors that can determine the severity of aflatoxin poisoning in cats including age, breed, overall health, type and amount of alfatoxin consumed, and hygene. If you suspect that your cat’s food may be contaminated, it is a good idea to bring it to the veterinarian with you. Unless there is a recall on the food, you may not know what has happened to your cat. The symptoms will be those of liver poisoning or liver failure as follows:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Discolored urine
  • Severe persistent vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Yellowing of the whites of eyes, belly, gums (Jaundice)

The veterinarian will need to start on supportive care immediately. Dr. Karen Becker, DVM recommends natural liver detox agents such as milk thistle, SAMe, and chlorophyll.

How good is the quality control on the cat food you use? If your cat's food contains any corn or grains, you need to read this post.

Photo Credit: irrational cat via Flickr


Have you ever known someone whose pet got sick from a pet food?

Sources & Digging Deeper

Mycotoxins – Clinical Microbiology Reviews

Mycotoxins: Pets Symptoms/Residues – Biomin

Mycotoxins: Pets Mycotoxins in General -Biomin

Why Upgrading Your Pet’s Diet Is More Important Now Than Ever – HealthyPets At Mercola

Yet Another Pet Food Recall For Deadly Contaminants – HealthyPets At Mercola

Mycotoxins and the pet food industry: Toxicological evidence and risk assessment – Science Direct

What are mycotoxins? – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Dr. Andrew Campbell and the effects of mycotoxins on human body

Dealing with Mold and Mildew in Your Flood Damaged Home – FEMA

Aflatoxin – CDC

Aflatoxins – National Toxicology Program, Department of Health and Human Services

Molds in the Environment – CDC