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Beynen AC, 2020. Onion in canned dog food

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Abstract

Onion in canned dog food Lists with poisonous foods for dogs, posted on the internet, all state that dogs should never eat onions (Note 1). But at the same time, the world's top petfood company (1), Mars Petcare, adds onion powder to its Pedigree canned dog foods, as evidenced by the ingredient lists (Note 2). Onion can also be found in some dog treats (Note 3). The use of label-unfriendly onion probably rests on two foundations. Onion powder is considered an essential savory flavor, while the required amount is far below that presumed to be toxic. In 1930, Sebrell (2) followed up an earlier, serendipitous observation. As predicted, mixing high amounts of cooked or raw onions into the diet of dogs produced anemia (Note 4). A year later, Gruhzit (3, 4) published that feeding onion juice, obtained by pressing heat-treated onions through a fruit press, also induced anemia. Besides, undefined sulfur compounds in the juice, eliciting the characteristic onion flavor, seemed responsible for the onion-induced anemia in dogs. Excessive onion feeding damages red blood cells. Due to accelerated breakdown, the number of cells falls, so that anemia sets in. A basic toxicological principle is that a substance produces a harmful effect only if it reaches susceptible body cells in a high enough amount. The lowest onion intake that still produces toxicity in dogs is unknown. Pedigree canned foods may contain no more than 0.15% onion powder as suggested by its position on the ingredient list of a specific product (Note 5). That amount, which is equivalent to less than 0.75% in completely dried food, likely is harmless (Note 6).
Bonny Canteen 2020; 1: 59-67.
Anton C. Beynen
Onion in canned dog food
Lists with poisonous foods for dogs, posted on the internet, all state that dogs should never eat
onions (Note 1). But at the same time, the world’s top petfood company (1), Mars Petcare, adds
onion powder to its Pedigree canned dog foods, as evidenced by the ingredient lists (Note 2).
Onion can also be found in some dog treats (Note 3). The use of label-unfriendly onion probably
rests on two foundations. Onion powder is considered an essential savory flavor, while the
required amount is far below that presumed to be toxic.
In 1930, Sebrell (2) followed up an earlier, serendipitous observation. As predicted, mixing high
amounts of cooked or raw onions into the diet of dogs produced anemia (Note 4). A year later,
Gruhzit (3, 4) published that feeding onion juice, obtained by pressing heat-treated onions through
a fruit press, also induced anemia. Besides, undefined sulfur compounds in the juice, eliciting the
characteristic onion flavor, seemed responsible for the onion-induced anemia in dogs.
Excessive onion feeding damages red blood cells. Due to accelerated breakdown, the number of
cells falls, so that anemia sets in. A basic toxicological principle is that a substance produces a
harmful effect only if it reaches susceptible body cells in a high enough amount. The lowest onion
intake that still produces toxicity in dogs is unknown. Pedigree canned foods may contain no more
than 0.15% onion powder as suggested by its position on the ingredient list of a specific product
(Note 5). That amount, which is equivalent to less than 0.75% in completely dried food, likely is
harmless (Note 6).
There is no evidence that dietary onion powder has any health benefits for dogs (Note 7). Dogs
may neutralize the sulfur compounds ingested with low amounts of onion. In line with this, the
feeding of commercial, canned dog foods with onion powder appears uncomplicated. There
probably are company-owned, confidential data supporting that onion powder is an effective
palatability enhancer.
Composition
Fresh, peeled onion bulbs hold about 88% moisture. The dry matter fraction roughly contains 8 and
3% crude protein and fat, but there are differences among cultivars (5-9, Note 8). The organosulfur-
compound profile of freshly-cut onions is highly complex and variable. Dipropyl disulfide (DPS) and
diallyl trisulfide (DATS, Note 9) are major components (10-12). Boiled (13) and freeze-dried (14)
onions had 21 g S-1-propenyl-L-cysteine sulfoxide (S1PC, isoalliin)/kg dry matter, but only 0.4 mg n-
propylthiosulfate (NPTS).
Toxicity
Sebrell (2) and Gruhzit (3) found anemia in dogs fed cooked or raw onions, or juice pressed from
autoclaved onions. The quantities equaled 15 g raw onion/kg body weight.day (bw.d) or 12% of
dietary dry matter (ddm, Note 10). After one week, hemoglobin and erythrocyte counts had dropped
maximally. No loss of weight and appetite were seen. Onion feeding caused hemolytic serum, dark-
brown colored urine and paleness of mucous membranes of the mouth.
Onion doses as high as the equivalents of 18-71 g raw onion/kg bw, had marked effects within one
day (15-19, Note 11). Blood methemoglobin content increased and hematocrit decreased, along
with the appearance of intra-erythrocytic Heinz bodies (inclusions composed of denaturated
hemoglobin) and eccentrocytes (erythrocytes with hemoglobin localized to a particular portion of
the cell). Reported clinical signs were inactivity, pale conjunctiva, hematuria, onion-like smell of
urine and soft feces. Onion was fed in various forms: minced and dehydrated, boiled or as soup
filtrate. Severe hemolytic anemias also occurred in canine clinical cases after accidental single
ingestion of dehydrated, raw or cooked onions (20-27).
Toxic mechanism
In isolated dog erythrocytes exposed to onion extract, hemoglobin was oxidized to methemoglobin
followed by the formation of Heinz bodies (28). That observation suggests that onions contain
oxidative compounds. By (apparent) contrast (Note 12), dogs with hereditary, high erythrocyte
reduced glutathione were extra susceptible to onion-induced hemolysis (17).
Gruhzit (4) showed that orally administered, synthetic disulfides caused hemolytic anemia in dogs,
and proposed that disulfides in onions do the same. NPTS oxidatively induced methemoglobin
formation by isolated canine erythrocytes (29) and produced hemolytic anemia in dogs (30, Note
13). Disulfides, including DATS, also raised methemoglobin in canine erythrocytes (31), as did an
onion-derived phenolic compound (32, Note 14).
Unanswered issues
Making use of literature in the public domain, it appears impossible to take stands as to three
matters: canine metabolism of onion’s organosulfur compounds and the safety and palatability of
onion powder. Concerning dogs, it is only known that S1PC undergoes N-acetylation and is then
excreted in urine (33, Note 15). The value of onion powder as palatability enhancer in (canned) dog
food cannot be assessed.
In dogs, aged 4 months, feeding a dry food mixed with 25% wet weight of onion (1 g dried onion/kg
bw.d or 4% of ddm, Note 16) for 18 months, neither lowered hematocrit nor induced clinical or
pathological changes (34). However, body-weight gain of dogs fed the onion diet was lower than
that of their counterparts fed the reference diet. The difference in weight gain could relate to the
reference diet and/or the added onion (Note 17).
Onions and cats
In cats, Heinz-body hemolytic anemia was observed after accidental onion ingestion (35) or
administration of baby food that turned out to contain onion powder (36-38). A cat fed such baby
food had a low hematocrit, which went up, down and up again after subsequent switching to food
without, with and without onion powder (38). A single dose of dried onion (10 g/kg bw, Note 18)
produced Heinz bodies and severe clinical signs (39).
A study with cats fed baby power without or with onion powder showed that the addition caused
Heinz-body formation (38). The feeding of canned food without or with onion powder (0.3, 0.75, 1.5
or 2.5% of ddm) did not affect food intake, but raised Heinz bodies in a dose-dependent fashion,
with steady-state values after about four weeks (38, Notes 19, 20).
Note 1
Onion often occurs in lists of toxic foods for dogs (a -d). Excessive onion amounts have ill effects
indeed, but the amounts of onion in commercial dog foods appear safe.
a. Anne EA. 10 common foods that are extremely toxic to dogs.
https://www.womansday.com/life/pet-care/a3775/pet-health-101-10-toxic-foods-for-dogs-77184/
b. Slideshow: Foods your dog should never eat. https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/ss/slideshow-foods-
your-dog-should-never-eat
c. Schenker M. 28 foods not to feed to your dog (and a list of those you can).
https://www.caninejournal.com/foods-not-to-feed-dog/
d. 13 human foods that are poisonous to dogs. https://www.vets-now.com/2017/01/foods-
poisonous-to-dogs/
Note 2
Canned dog food: Pedigree, CHOICE CUTS IN GRAVY with beef
Ingredients: Sufficient Water for Processing, Chicken, Meat By-Products, Wheat Flour, Beef, Liver,
Wheat Gluten, Salt, Added Color, Sodium Tripolyphosphate, Natural Flavors, Guar Gum, Vegetable
Oil (Source of Linoleic Acid), Minerals (Potassium Chloride, Magnesium Proteinate, Zinc Sulfate,
Copper Lysine Complex, Copper Sulfate, Potassium Iodide), Natural Smoke Flavor, Xanthan Gum,
Onion Powder, Bay Leaves, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3
Supplement, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamine Mononitrate {Vitamin B1}, Biotin), Garlic Powder,
Sodium Nitrite (for Color Retention).
Note 3
Few treats for dogs contain onion extract (a-c) or onion powder (d).
a. Milo’s Kitchen, Beef sausage slices with rice. https://www.miloskitchen.com/treats/beef-sausage-
slices-with-rice
b. Pup-Peroni Dog Snacks. https://www.amazon.com/Pup-Peroni-Original-Flavor-Snacks-25-
Ounce/dp/B001JJXBTS
c. Gravy Train Beef Sticks Dog Snacks. https://www.dollargeneral.com/gravy-train-beef-sticks-dog-
snacks-3-oz.html
d. Purina, Honest to Dog, Tasty Tenders, Turkey & Chicken Recipe. https://www.purina.com/honest-
to-dog/dog-treats/tasty-tenders-grain-free-turkey-chicken
Note 4
While testing the blacktongue-preventive value of onions in dogs, it was found that severe anemia
developed. Subsequently, cooked or raw, peeled, chopped onions were mixed into the diet of 5 and
2 dogs, respectively, and blood hemoglobin determinations and red cell counts were made (2). In
amounts of 6 or 10 g/kg body weight.day (bw.d), onion feeding produced slight anemia which
became severe at intakes of 15 to 34 g.
Note 5
Onion powder in the ingredient list shown in Note 2 is placed right behind xanthan gum. The product
concerns meat chunks in sauce. To prepare the sauce, a maximum of 0.3% xanthan gum may be
required. When the chunks take up 50% of the can’s content, then its overall, maximum
concentration of xanthan gum would be 0.15%. Thus, the amount of onion powder also is about
0.15%, or (somewhat) lower. For canned food containing 80% moisture, 0.15% onion powder in the
product equals 0.75% of dietary dry matter (ddm).
Note 6
In young dogs fed 4.26% onion of ddm (Note 16) for 18 months, neither hematocrit lowering nor
clinical or pathological changes were seen (34). That observation implies that 0.75% onion powder in
ddm is safe. However, an objection may be raised to the safety of 4.26% onion in ddm (Note 17).
In cats, the feeding of onion powder at 0.3% of ddm induced the formation of Heinz bodies within
erythrocytes and lowered the hematocrit (38). It seems that cats are more sensitive than dogs to the
development of erythrocyte damage as elicited by onion feeding.
Note 7
Onions are lauded not only for their flavor, but also for their high content of quercetin, a flavonol
with presumed antioxidative activity in the body. There is no evidence that dietary quercetin has
health benefits in dogs (40).
Note 8
Reported moisture content of peeled onion bulbs and proximate composition, expressed as g/100 g
dry matter or ˅air-dry matter
Ref.
Moisture
Protein
Fat
Fiber
Ash
5^
89.6
3.2
2.2
3.8
3.3
5*
88.5
3.0
6.5
2.8
3.2
6
nr
10.9
1.0
nr
5.0
7B
83.0
15.4
2.4
15.5
1.2
7I
82.9
8.6
4.2
9.6
1.4
8
91.1
3.9
nr
nr
nr
9˅A
91.1
14.1
0.9
11.5
0.3
^White and *red Allium cepa; nr = not reported; Origins: BBangladesh, IIndia, AAlgeria; NFE =
nitrogen-free extract
Note 9
Diallyl trisulfide (DATS) also is a major organosulfur compound occurring in garlic (41).
Note 10
The amount of 15 g raw onion/kg bw.d equals 1.8 g dry onion/15 g of ddm, which is 12% in ddm.
Note 11
The doses as high as 18-71 g raw onions/kg bw are equivalent to 2.16-8.52 g dry onion/15 g of ddm,
or 14.4-56.8% of ddm. The amounts were given as single dose (15, 17) or for two (18) or three days
(16, 19).
Note 12
Net oxidation of ironII in hemoglobin, thus net formation of ironIII in methemoglobin, may occur
when reduction of methemoglobin by reduced glutathione is decreased. It could be anticipated that
increased availability of reduced glutathione protects against methemoglobin accumulation.
However, dogs with hereditary, high erythrocyte reduced glutathione were extra susceptible to
onion-induced hemolysis (17).
Note 13
In-vitro experiments (29) confirmed the observation that dogs with hereditary, high erythrocyte
reduced glutathione are extra susceptible to onion-induced hemolysis (17). Canine erythrocytes with
high concentrations of reduced glutathione were more susceptible to oxidative damage by NPTS
than normal erythrocytes (29).
Note 14
A phenolic compound with C30H18O14 as chemical formula was isolated from onions and found to
increase the concentration of methemoglobin in isolated canine erythrocytes (32). The compound
would be expected to inhibit oxidative conversion of hemoglobin into methemoglobin. Phenols have
a tendency to donate electrons, thus protecting other substances against oxidation. The phenolic
compound obviously did not antagonize the conversion of hemoglobin into methemoglobin, nor did
it facilitate the (complete) transformation of methemoglobin back to hemoglobin.
Note 15
Orally administered S1PC was completely absorbed by dogs and found in plasma and urine as its N-
acetylated metabolite (33). However, the renal clearance values pointed to extensive renal
absorption of S1PC, contributing to long elimination half-lives. Thus, relatively low daily intakes of
S1PC might lead to toxicity.
Note 16
The dogs received a commercial, complete diet, presumably in dry form, containing the equivalent
of 25% weight wet onion (34). Thus, per 100 g the experimental diet consisted of 75 g dry food (67.5
g dry matter + 7.5 g water) and 25 g onion (3 g dry matter + 22 g water). The amount of onion on a
dry matter basis was 3/70.5 = 4.26%. When assuming an intake of 22.5 g dry matter/kg bw.d for the
young growing dogs, intake of dried onion equaled 0.96 g/kg bw.d.
Note 17
The dogs fed onion (Note 16, 34) were escorted by dogs fed the same base diet, but it was
supplemented with an undisclosed amount of commercial, canned dog meat. The dogs fed the onion
diet grew slower than the reference dogs. The group difference in body-weight gain may lie in a
stimulatory effect of the reference diet and/or inhibitory effect of the onion diet. The latter could
represent a negative effect of onion consumption.
Note 18
Four-month old cats were given a single dose of 10 g dried onion/kg bw (39). At body weight of 2 kg
and dm intake of 75 g/day, the dose would be equivalent to 20/75 = 26.7% of ddm.
Note 19
Adult cats were fed a canned food mixed with onion powder at levels of 0, 0.3, 0.75, 1.5 and 2.5% of
ddm (38). There was a linear relationship between dietary onion level and the rate of Heinz body
formation between days 0 and 15 of feeding the diets. The lowest onion dose versus no onion clearly
increased the percentage of erythrocytes with Heinz bodies. Thus, a no-observed-effect-level was
not identified. Remarkably, when compared with the baseline of zero Heinz bodies, the level also
had increased in cats fed the diet without onion powder. The authors attributed that effect to the
presence of fish in the canned diet.
The hematocrit of the cats fed the diet with onion powder at 2.5% of ddm was clearly lower than
that of their counterparts given the control diet. Dogs fed a diet containing 4.26 % onion of ddm did
not show hematocrit lowering (34, Note 16). As mentioned above (Note 6), cats are more sensitive
to onion consumption than dogs.
Note 20
Further experiments with cats confirmed that addition of onion powder (1 or 3% of ddm) to the
canned food of cats was followed by the formation of Heinz bodies (42). Simultanous oral
administration of capsules with antioxidants (N-acetyl cysteine, vitamin E or ascorbate) did not
convincingly counteract the formation of Heinz bodies (cf. Notes 12-14).
Note 21
In dogs with mechanically damaged and stenosed arteries, intragastric administration of raw-onion
homogenate (2 g/kg bw) restored coronary blood flow (43). Healthy dogs given a high amount of
onion juice through oro-gastric tube showed a decrease in their hematocrit and developed
bradicardia followed by tachycardia (44).
Note 22
Daily administration of 56.7 g raw onion to dogs did not have a significant anthelmintic effect (45).
Using onions as control measure of hook-, tape- and whipworms in dogs appears ineffective.
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The purpose of this study was to investigate the therapeutic effect of hydrogen on the therapy of onion poisoned dogs. A total of 16 adult beagle dogs were divided into two groups (control and hydrogen) and all were fed dehydrated onion powder at the dose of 10 g/kg for three days. The dogs of the experimental group were given subcutaneous injection of 0.2 mL/kg of hydrogen for 12 days after making the poisoned model successful. Blood samples were collected before feeding onions, one day before injecting hydrogen, and 2 h after the injection of hydrogen on days 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12. Control dogs were not treated with hydrogen. The levels of leukocyte production, anaemia, red blood cell degeneration which was reflected by the values of Heinz body count, haemolytic ratio, and oxidative products in hydrogen treated group were lower than in control dogs on some days. The capacity of medullary haematopoiesis that was based on reticulocyte counts, and the antioxidation in hydrogen group were higher compared with control group. However, the differences in renal function were not obvious in both groups. Accordingly, it was concluded that subcutaneous injection of hydrogen could alleviate the symptoms in onion poisoned dogs.
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