As cases of blood condition pancytopenia persist, investigators suggest food fungi could be to blame

Last modified on Thu 5 Aug 2021 01.55 EDT

Cats are still dying in significant numbers from a mystery illness that investigators believe may be linked to widely sold cat food brands, prompting concern that not enough is being done to warn owners about a nationwide product recall.

Vets around the UK are understood to have been swamped by cases of pancytopenia, a condition in which the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets decreases rapidly, causing serious illness.

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) said this week it was aware of at least 528 cases in cats over the past few months, of which 63.5% have proved fatal. The true number of deaths could be far higher, it said, because many cases are not reported to vets and only a small percentage of vets pass data on to the RVC.

Certain batches of Sainsbury’s hypoallergenic cat foods, Applaws and AVA (a Pets at Home brand) were recalled by their manufacturer, Fold Hill Foods, in mid-June, prompting an investigation by the RVC and the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The RVC and FSA are yet to confirm the cause of the spate of deaths, more than six weeks after initially raising the alarm. The length of the investigation is said to be causing frustration among cat food suppliers. Both agencies have said they are looking into all possibilities, including those not associated with food.

One cat owner, whose pet died on Tuesday, warned that too few people were aware of the recall and could unwittingly be feeding their cat products that could kill them.

Steven Barrett, a criminal barrister from High Wycombe, said his nine-year-old cat, Freya, a ragdoll, died on Tuesday after five days of illness.

Barrett said Freya had only ever eaten Applaws and had finished the last of a 7.5kg bag of its dry chicken food shortly before she began vomiting.

He said he had heard nothing about the product recall until he tried to buy more food online and saw it wasn’t available, prompting him to look into why.

“My heart went through the floor,” he said. “She was a member of our little family, which is how we treated her. I just wanted her to have the best food.”

The cat was not allowed outside where she could have been exposed to other toxins, he added.

When Barrett phoned his usual vet he was unable to get an appointment because the clinic had been overwhelmed with similar cases.

“When the receptionist heard the name of the cat food she just told me to get an emergency appointment at another vet. I took her yesterday and she was dead by the end of the day,” he said.

“My worry is that a lot of cat owners bulk buy dry food and this is a massive recall, so there could be toxin in bags of dried food that will be opened and given to cats and more cats will die.”

Although the RVC and FSA investigations are ongoing, a statement on the RVC website referred to the possibility that the illness could be caused by mycotoxins, which are toxic compounds naturally produced by various fungi.

Mycotoxins can grow on crops before or after harvest and appear on foodstuffs including cereals, nuts, spices, dried fruits, apple juice and coffee, often under warm and humid conditions.

All of the brands that have been recalled are dry foods manufactured by Fold Hill Foods, part of the Lincolnshire-based farming business JW Grant.

A spokesperson for Fold Hill said: “As stated by the FSA, there is no definitive evidence to confirm a link at this stage between the cat food products and feline pancytopenia.

“We continue to fully cooperate with both the FSA and the RVC as they continue to investigate all potential causes of the pancytopenia cases, feed and non-feed related.

“As cat owners ourselves, we fully understand how upsetting and stressful this situation is and the urgent need to establish why there has been an increase in cases of pancytopenia in the UK.”

Sainsbury’s said it was assisting with an investigation involving two of its hypoallergenic cat foods and was offering full refunds, while Pets at Home said it had recalled AVA and Applaws products and was assisting investigators. Applaws said it was “heartbroken” at the suggestion that any food it sold could be linked to cat deaths, adding that it was helping with the inquiry.

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