Dogs may be at risk from high levels of lead in raw pheasant food

Researchers found that raw pheasant dog food contained high levels of lead, which could put dogs' health at risk.


There are several harmful consequences of lead on animals; no blood lead content is considered safe for children. Lead is still widely used worldwide as the major component of shotgun pellets and bullets, leading to higher lead concentrations in meat.

Lead is still widely used worldwide. UK and EU regulators are evaluating the potential health benefits of restricting the use of lead ammunition. 

Researchers discovered that most of the raw pheasant dog food samples they examined contained high concentrations of lead, which could be dangerous for dogs‘ health if consumed frequently.

Lead is a harmful metal that severely impacts human and animal body systems, especially the nervous system. 

Although high levels of dietary lead can harm animal health, lead shot is legal in the UK for hunting terrestrial gamebirds such as pheasants. While humans consume the majority of pheasants, some are used in pet food.

According to law, the University of Cambridge researchers examined 90 samples from three raw pheasant dog food items purchased in the UK. They discovered that 77% of the samples had lead amounts that exceeded the maximum residue level (MRL) allowed in animal feed. 

Lead author Professor Debbie Pain of Cambridge’s Zoology Department said, “We were already aware that lead concentrations in pheasant meat sold for human consumption are often far higher than would be permitted in other meats like chicken, beef, or pork. However, we were surprised that lead concentrations in raw pheasant dog food products were much higher.”

The three items had mean lead contents that were roughly 245, 135, and 49 times greater than the MRL.

The mean lead concentration in the raw pheasant dog food examined was 34 times higher than the recently disclosed level of lead in pheasant meat sold for human consumption, which is already thought to be too high. 

According to researchers, this may be because whole bird or pheasant breasts are typically marketed for human consumption, whereas raw pheasant meat is typically minced for dog food. Lead shots may be fragmented during the process of mincing, increasing the number of tiny lead particles in the flesh and the likelihood that lead will be absorbed into the bloodstream.

According to the researchers, dogs who consume food with such high lead concentrations risk suffering health effects, especially if they consume it frequently or as their primary diet.

Puppies are especially at risk because lead negatively impacts the growing neurological system, and young animals tend to absorb more information than fully mature animals.

The scientists tested five pheasant-based dog food products, three of which were raw meat products, one was a dried pheasant and partridge product, and one was processed. Three equivalent chicken-based pet food products (raw meat, dried, and processed) were also assessed. 

Levels of lead above the MRL were identified in some samples of the dried pheasant-based product. However, the mean concentration was far lower than in the raw products. 

None of the samples from the chicken-based products or the tinned pheasant and goose-based products contained unacceptable lead levels.

The popularity of raw meat diets for pets is increasing across the UK, with 34% of the 50 online raw pet food suppliers checking that the meat may contain shots.71% stated that the heart might include a shot. Home to an estimated 13 million dogs and 12 million cats. The researchers found that natural dog food, including pheasant meat, was widely available in the UK. 

Co-author Professor Rhys Green said, “The fact that most samples from three randomly sampled raw pheasant pet food products had very high lead concentrations and that our recent research on shot types used to kill pheasants found that 94% are shot with lead suggests that this is a far broader issue than for just these three products, However, some producers may source pheasants that have not been shot with lead, and owners could ask about this when buying pet food.”

The study of shot types in pheasants sold for human consumption is part of a body of research assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary ban in the UK on lead shotgun ammunition to shoot wild quarry, which is being phased in over five years from February 2020. Nine major shooting organizations committed to this for sustainability reasons, considering wildlife and the environment, and ensuring a market for the healthiest game products.

Cambridge scientists have consistently found compliance with the voluntary ban to be low, which is in line with other studies investigating other voluntary bans. However, a total ban in Denmark is very effective.

A ban on the sale and use of lead gunshots and restrictions on lead bullets is currently being considered under the UK REACH Chemicals Regulation.

The analytical costs of this research were funded by Wild Justice.

Journal Reference:

  1. Pain, D.J., Green, R.E., Bates, N. et al. Lead concentrations in commercial dog food containing pheasant in the UK. Ambio. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-023-01856-x
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