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Mycotoxin Poisoning

I have had a very unfortunate and painful crash course on mycotoxin poisoning.  Don't know what that is?  Neither did I, other than hearing the word on the rabbit lists I am on, until my bunnies started dying.

For the last 8 years, I have bought my rabbit food from Pet Supplies Plus.  They have always carried a brand called Double Duty and we bought it 50 pounds at a time.  Over the years, my bunnies have never had any health problems and with the exception of new rescues coming in with illness or my bunny with cancer, I have been very fortunate.  In July 2002, Pet Supplies Plus changed their brand of rabbit feed from Double Duty to Scarlet. We bought a bag because the bunnies obviously still needed to eat!  The bunnies took to it with no problem but my husband commented that this new food "looked" cheaper and lower quality than the other food.  6 weeks after the bunnies started eating this new food, several of them suddenly started getting sick.  The first signs I saw were excessive drinking, messy butts, runny eyes and runny noses.  My first thought was "What the heck is going on here?"  "Why are my bunnies suddenly getting sick?".  My husband and I decided it was most likely the food since that was the only thing that had changed in our environment.  We removed all their food and put it aside in a bucket.  The next day, I found a feed store about 25 miles from our house that carried Purina Rabbit Chow.

I took 2 of the sickest bunnies to the vet.  She didn't find any specific cause but put the bunnies on an antibiotic.  Peanut was the first bunny to die on 9/23/02 followed by Freckles on 9/24/02, Vincent on 9/27/02, Daffy on 9/28/02, SweetPea on 10/3/02, Big Bunny on 10/24/02, Snugglebunny on 11/29/02, Calypso on 12/02/02 and Cocoa on 1/9/03.  You can see all my beautiful bridge bunnies and what signs and symptoms they had by clicking here. We had several more vet trips and many medicines later, the bunnies were still sick or dying.

After the first 2 bunnies died and 5 more were still sick, I notified the pet store that I believe that the problem was most likely mycotoxin poisoning and that I would be sending a food sample to the state veterinary lab to find out for sure.  They basically blew me off and told me to let them know what I found out from the testing but that no one else had reported any problems.  I told them that most people have 1 or 2 rabbits and if they got sick or died suddenly, they wouldn't have a clue why and wouldn't pursue it the way I was.

Freckles's body was sent to the state lab in Columbus, OH for Necropsy and when Daffy died, his body was also sent for testing.  In the meantime, I also filled a bag with the bunny pellets I suspected of being the problem and I sent it off to the state lab in PA.  

The necropsy results were 4 pages long but boil down to the following: 

Sections of cerebrum, cerebellum, brainstem, kidney, lung, spleen, pancreas, liver, kidney, skin, stomach, large and small intestine were examined.

  • The section of kidney had one small lymphocytic focus in the cortical interstitium
  • The section of lung had a homogeneous, eosinophilic material, edema, present in alveoli and the lung was congested.
  • The section of cerebrum had mild lymphoplasmacytic perivascular cuffing present in the neuropil in the hippocampal region.  One section of the cerebrum appeared to have a focus of gitter cells and lymphoplasmacytic perivascular cuffing.
  • Mild saponification was present in the adipose tissue adjacent to the pancreas.
  • The section of liver had a mild lymphoplasmacytic infiltrate in scattered portal triads.
  • The section of heart had a mild mononuclear infiltrate in the epicardium and adjacent mycocardium.
  • The section of skin was ulcerated and degenerate and karyorrhectic neutrphils (heterophils).  Ecsinophillic cellular debris and bacteria in the site of ulceration.
  • The lungs were severely congested and edematous.  The lungs were lightly firmer than normal.
  • The changes in the lungs are highly suggestive of acute pneumonia.
  • The tissues were markedly autolytic
  • Within the right war canal was a purulent, yellow material.  This material extended into the tympanic bulla

To see complete necropsy results, click here.

Results on the first food testing came back as follows:

Feed sample submitted contained 60.0 ppb Zearalenone and 2.0 ppm Deoxynivalenol (vomitoxin or DON).  Sample submitted was negative for aflatoxins at levels > or = 5.0 ppb and T-2 at levels > or = 50.0 ppb.

Now I can't begin to claim that I really understand what all this all means except that the food was positive for mycotoxins and my bunnies had a variety of problems found upon necropsy with the most likely cause being those mycotoxins.

So now what...I called the Pet Supplies Plus again once I received the mycotoxin positive results.  Pet Supplies Plus stated that they REFUSE to remove the food from their shelves and said they have no intention of doing anything about it.  They told me to call the home office, which I did,  and they told me to call the distributor, which I did.  Nobody seems to want to acknowledge this, even with the lab proof I have. 

On 10/25/02, I spoke with the State of OH department of Agriculture and explained to them what has been going on and the response from the pet store.  The gentleman I spoke with (don't wish to list his name here) was appalled at the reaction of the pet store and sent an investigator to the store the following week.  On 10/25, I also bought a new bag of food off the pet stores shelves and sent it to the state lab in PA for additional testing.  I wanted to see if what the pet store was still selling was contaminated with mycotoxins.  Interestingly enough, the food on the shelves was in a completely different bag that what it had been packed in since it first came into their store.  Seems kind of strange to me since they had told me they didn't intend to do anything about the food after I reported it to them since they said that no one else had complained.

10/28/02 I got a call back from the distributor for the pet store and he informed me that they do not feel that there is enough evidence to prove that their food had anything to do with my bunnies deaths or current health problems. Therefore, they intend to do nothing about the situation or reimburse me at all for all my expenses.   I told him that he had not heard the end of me.

I took Cocoa to the vet again on 10/28/02 because he seemed to be getting worse.  Cocoa has had white stuff coming from his nose for a few weeks.  He has been on SMZ, Oxibendazole, Lincocin and several other medications but he has made no improvements.  The vet said that the white stuff from his nose would usually indicate pasteurella but he has no lesions which would confirm that.  His ears were fine and his lungs sounded good but he is down to 2lbs from 2.5lbs.  She started Cocoa on baytril and Pen-G on the hopes that we might be able to get this cleared up.

During this time, Caly has been extremely sick.  The vet has tested for many things and not found any cause for the use of her limbs, severe malnourishment and deyhdration.  Caly's eyes, ears and nose have remained clear and she showed no obvious signs of infection.  I was syringe feeding Caly twice a day in addition to sub-q fluids, baytril, Pen-G and oxibendazole but there was still no improvement.  Caly had a Rabbit Complete blood panel done and her results were all over the board but didn't point to any specific problem.  To see Caly's blood results, Click Here.  My vet began contacting other vets and resources that either one of us could think of.

My vet received the results from the 2nd sample of Scarlett food that I sent to the State Veterinary Lab in PA.  This time, they wouldn't send the information to me so I had to have the vet fax it over.  There was a comments section and this is what it said.

Specimens are accepted through practicing vets on behalf of owners of pet animals.  We will offer consultation to you in an effort to help solve your client's problems.  Please relay these results to your client.  There is a rumor circulating among rabbit fanciers that mycotoxins are causing problems among rabbits.  I suspect that these rumors originate from a non-veterinarian nutritionist.  On several occasions I have referred to colleagues whose practices are limited to veterinary toxicology.  They have no knowledge that rabbits are particularly sensitive to any of the common mycotoxins.  The history provided by Ms. Palevsky suggests environmental problems resulting in or in addition to some of the common pathologic problems of pet rabbits.  She refers to pathology reports but did not include them.  The results of our tests are included.  None of these feeds are considered to have mycotoxins in concentrations expected to be harmful to domestic animals.  Also, for future reference, we do not conduct testing on products for the purposes of quality control on those products.  If you, doctor, have any additional questions, please don't hesitate to call.  

The lab findings from the second set of tests on the food are as follows: (To see the first results again, Click Here.)

Feed sample Scarlet 1 contained 1.5 ppm DON on an "as fed" basis
Feed sample Scarlet 2 contained 2.0 ppm DON on an "as fed" basis
Feed sample Scarlet Treats (I always mixed it in with their food) contained .9 ppm Fumonisin on an "as fed" basis.

(From Cristina Forbes) Test results reported on an "as fed" basis underestimates the amount of mycotoxin contained in the samples. More accurate, more comparable measurements are reported on a "dry matter" basis, with the moisture content removed. Say a sample contains 10% moisture, you have to divide the amount of mycotoxin measured by the dry amount of sample (100-10% = 90% or .9), so:

1.5 ppm of DON "as fed" --> 1.5/.9 = 1.67 ppm of DON on a "dry matter" basis
2.0 ppm of DON "as fed" --> 2.0/.9 = 2.22 ppm of DON on a "dry matter" basis
0.9 ppm of Fumonisin "as fed" = 1 ppm of Fumonisin on a "dry matter" basis

Now, I don't know if someone is paying off this lab to say that mycotoxin poisoning is a rumor but every study I have read on the web talks about it and its devastating effects in farm animals. I also find it interesting that the same lab tested both food samples and did the testing based on a dry matter method the first time but on an as fed basis the second time.   Information I was given is that there is a distinct rift within the toxicology community regarding how dangerous mycotoxins are. One group of toxicologists (primarily those with ties to large agribusiness/farmers, who want their livestock just healthy enough to make it to slaughter) maintains that animals can withstand high levels of mycotoxins, while the other group has observed, both in their research and in the field, that much lower levels can cause significant damage to animals.

As suggested by Cristina Forbes, my vet called Dr. Winston Hagler, Professor and Director of the Mycotoxin Laboratory at NCSU. His credentials can be found here: http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/poultry/hagler.htm.  In any case, he says there is no way to tell 100% that it is mycotoxins but since they do compromise the immune system and the pathology and symptoms of the bunnies has varied without finding any definite cause, the most likely cause would have to be the mycotoxins. This doctor did say he hadn't studied rabbits specifically but he knows their systems are very susceptible to the effects of mycotoxins. (See how this specifically contradicts what the lab that did the testing said?)  My vet wrote up a summary of that conversation and sent it to me. This completes my documentation and proof that this rabbit food is the cause of my bunnies illness and deaths.  If you would like to see the contents of the letter my vet wrote, Click Here.  

Another friend of mine, Linda Ogawa Oleszko, who runs the Michigan Rabbit Rescue, contacted the owner of some of the Pet Supplies Plus stores.  She apparently has had some interaction with him and he has been very helpful to MRR.  Linda explained the situation to him and the steps I wanted to take (TV, newspaper etc..).  Linda told me that he truly cares about the animals and felt he would want to do the right thing.  He assured Linda that this food would be removed from the store and the manager would contact me.  I did not hear back from the manager but I have to believe the food was pulled as he stated.  This owner asked me to call his secretary to send all of my documentation and the reasons I feel that this food is responsible for the death and illness of my bunnies.  I sent all the information as requested and told the owner that I looked forward to a response by 12/14/02.

On 12/4/02, I received a call from the distributor asking me to remove this page from my site and any mention of their food and mycotoxins because they feel that it is slander.  I disagree and told them that I am merely stating facts and that I use my site to educate people from what I learn and that I absolutely would not remove this information.  No where on this site have I mentioned the name of the distributor nor the company he works for, so I don't see how this can be slander.

There is no possible way to know who is responsible for the mycotoxins.  It could have left their place fine and was stored wrong during transport or at the store.  I won't say it left the company this way, but the fact is, this food contains levels of mycotoxins that are dangerous and lethal.  When a meat company gets reports that the meat they have had shipped out is causing people to get sick, the first thing they do is a massive recall so no additional people will get sick.  They don't point fingers or refuse to take action, they act to stop the problem.  When I made my initial contact to the store, home office and distributor, I just wanted the food pulled and tested.  I only became "pissed at all of them" when they all refused to step up to the plate and do the right thing.  Why do our animals not deserve the same rights that we do when food is suspected of causing illness and death?

The last few months have been very difficult on me and my family.  It is physically and emotionally draining to watch helplessly as your beloved fur babies keep getting sick and dying despite all your efforts.  When you are so tired that you just want to get into bed but you have to bathe a bunny that can't stand on her own and change her diaper, feed her and give her fluids and then still take care of all the other bunnies and sick children and household things and you just can't imagine being able to do this for 1 more day...but you do, because you have to.  I hope that no one else ever has to go through what we have been going through and I pray that I don't lose any more of my beloved babies but I know that I have some still sick.

As I learn more, I will continue to update this page.

I have received tremendous emotional sand financial upport and notes from all of you out there.  I have had people asking me how they can help or offering me additional suggestions and possibilities.  I can't begin to tell you all how much all of your notes have meant to me and I can truly feel your love and support.  I am sorry if I don't respond to your notes right away, but please know that I read each and every email but I often don't have the strength to respond to everyone.  Bless you all and thanks for taking the time to read this page.

Excellent Links for more information on Mycotoxins:

Mold and Mycotoxins in Rabbit Feed - This site is by Cristina Forbes PhD and is a MUST READ!
European Mycotoxin Awareness Network
Mycotoxins in Corn (Many Rabbit foods include ground corn)
Understanding and Coping with Effects of Mycotoxins in Livestock Feed and Forage
dairy farmers and vets need to know about molds and mycotoxins





Great Rabbit Resources worth checking out!

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Last Updated: January 10, 2004 01:36 PM