Vets reveal toll of treating sick dogs during Victoria’s worst pet food contamination outbreak

In June, a veterinary clinic in Burnsdale, east of Victoria, began seeing pet dogs with a mysterious disease — within days they were overwhelmed by sick animals all with the same symptoms.

Soon, they called the authorities.

All dogs had severe hepatotoxicity. Eight died.

Now, staff at Main Street Veterinary Clinic, ground zero for the worst pet food contamination in Victoria’s history, have told of their stress and pain during An outbreak that killed 26 dogs across the state.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” veterinary nurse Louise South said. “It was hard and exhausting.”

Across the state, 68 dogs have been registered by Victorian authorities as having suffered from liver problems after eating tainted pet food from the Maffra District Knackery.

Most dog owners thought they were buying “premium beef” and were shocked when toxicology tests revealed that their pet food contained horse meat tainted with the toxin endospicin, which is known to cause liver failure in dogs.

The poison is found in many species of indigofera plants that grow only in northern Australia.

The discovery of endosperin led to a two-state investigation to try to discover how the plant-eating horses ended up in Gippsland.

Group photo of veterinary nurses in uniform.
Staff at Main Street Veterinary Clinic have treated 40 of the 68 dogs who became ill across Victoria from toxic pet food.(ABC Gippsland: Emma Field)

Vets struggle to diagnose the cause

In late June, in the early days of the crisis, veterinarian Dorel Esnov said staff were quick to find out what had made so many dogs sick.

Originally they thought it could be a rare bacterial infection known as leptospirosis, which can also cause liver failure in dogs.

Knowing that animal disease can be transmitted to humans and other animals, the staff of the veterinary clinic had to take strict precautions while treating sick animals.

“The nurses stuck in the kennel were in full PPE for 12 hours, trying to avoid any urine, secretions or anything on them,” said Dr. Esnov.

“In my nearly 40 years of practice, I think it was by far the most stressful time I’ve ever dealt with.”

Veterinary hospital hit capacity

The vet struggled to deal with the intense workload. The dogs had to be force-fed because many refused to eat or could not keep the food they had been given.

“One night, we had 11 liver cases in our hospital on IV drips, or pretty much we didn’t eat and needed supportive feeding, either with a stomach tube or an esophageal tube,” Ms South said.

Another vet at the clinic, Jade Hammer, said they put together a list of extra nurses over the weekend to handle the workload.

“We have reached the point of needing to transfer the animals to other veterinary clinics because at one point our hospital was operating which had not happened before,” he said.

“Most of the dogs that have been in the hospital, that require this intense treatment, would not have survived without this kind of care.”

Ms South said dealing with struggling owners was also another stressful part of the job.

Eight of the dogs treated by the clinic died. The most recent was just last month when a 10-year-old French mastiff named Lily failed to recover despite starting treatment in July.

Chantel Lawson, who describes Lilly as “like another child” in her family, is shocked.

Two women raised a brown dog.
Dorel Esnov and Louise South treated lily for several months.(ABC Gippsland: Emma Field)

She thanked clinic staff, as Lilly was a regular visitor after she was first admitted four months ago with hepatitis from contaminated meat purchased at a local store.

Ms Lawson is outraged that there has been no faster recall of pet food, which is not mandatory in Australia, nor is there a national standard for pet food.

But most of all she misses her pet.

“It was kind of a gut ache,” she said.

Clinic alerts authorities

Main Street Veterinary Clinic was also responsible for contacting Implant Victoria and alerting the department to the issue days after the first dog with liver problems was admitted.

Dr. Hammer said they worked closely with Victoria Agricultural and Prime Save during the investigation.

On July 3, they posted a Facebook post about the wave of dog diseases and warned locals that the common link is pet food from petting. This led to another local retailer, Doggie Den, also warning its customers about the problem.

More than a month later, a Victorian Agriculture investigation found that a poisonous pet food was linked to wild horses from the Northern Territory that had been processed in the Knackery Mafra region.

On August 19, a PrimeSafe and Agriculture Victoria investigation found that no pet food manufacturing laws were violated and there was nothing wrong with the supply chain.

The case was closed without any charges being brought.

Two veterinarians wearing masks stand in front of the cages.
Jade Hammer and Dorel Esnoff struggled to diagnose what caused a wave of dog deaths in late June.(ABC Gippsland: Emma Field)

Dr Esnov said some veterinarians who worked in northern Australia had alerted her to the possibility of endosperin as a possible cause of hepatotoxicity.

The disease was severe, she said, and at times dogs died of neurological complications due to liver failure or pneumonia.

“It’s not fun for these dogs at all,” she said.

She wants to overhaul the pet food regulation, something that a Senate investigation recommended in 2018, but never implemented.

“I think the owners deserve some accountability in terms of what’s in the packages of the food they buy,” Dr. Esnov said.

And despite the bad batch of toxic meat processed in May and June, they still saw new cases of liver disease.

“We still see the odd owner presenting with a sick dog who wasn’t aware of the problem,” she said.

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