Identification and characterization of toxicity of contaminants in pet food leading to an outbreak of renal toxicity in cats and dogs

Toxicol Sci. 2008 Nov;106(1):251-62. doi: 10.1093/toxsci/kfn160. Epub 2008 Aug 9.


This paper describes research relating to the major recall of pet food that occurred in Spring 2007 in North America. Clinical observations of acute renal failure in cats and dogs were associated with consumption of wet pet food produced by a contract manufacturer producing for a large number of companies. The affected lots of food had been formulated with wheat gluten originating from China. Pet food and gluten were analyzed for contaminants using several configurations of high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and mass spectrometry (MS), which revealed a number of simple triazine compounds, principally melamine and cyanuric acid, with lower concentrations of ammeline, ammelide, ureidomelamine, and N-methylmelamine. Melamine and cyanuric acid, have been tested and do not produce acute renal toxicity. Some of the triazines have poor solubility, as does the compound melamine cyanurate. Pathological evaluation of cats and dogs that had died from the acute renal failure indicated the presence of crystals in kidney tubules. We hypothesized that these crystals were composed of the poorly soluble triazines, a melamine-cyanuric acid complex, or a combination. Sprague dawley rats were given up to 100 mg/kg ammeline or ammelide alone, a mixture of melamine and cyanuric acid (400/400 mg/kg/day), or a mixture of all four compounds (400 mg/kg/day melamine, 40 mg/kg/day of the others). Neither ammeline nor ammelide alone produced any renal effects, but the mixtures produced significant renal damage and crystals in nephrons. HPLC-MS/MS confirmed the presence of melamine and cyanuric acid in the kidney. Infrared microspectroscopy on individual crystals from rat or cat (donated material from a veterinary clinic) kidneys confirmed that they were melamine-cyanuric acid cocrystals. Crystals from contaminated gluten produced comparable spectra. These results establish the causal link between the contaminated gluten and the adverse effects and provide a mechanistic explanation for how two apparently innocuous compounds could have adverse effects in combination, that is, by forming an insoluble precipitate in renal tubules leading to progressive tubular blockage and degeneration.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Kidney Injury / chemically induced*
  • Acute Kidney Injury / veterinary
  • Animal Feed / analysis*
  • Animals
  • Cat Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Cat Diseases / pathology
  • Cats
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • China
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Crystallization
  • Dog Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Dog Diseases / pathology
  • Dogs
  • Female
  • Food Contamination*
  • Kidney Tubules / drug effects
  • Kidney Tubules / pathology
  • Microspectrophotometry
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Spectrophotometry, Infrared
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry
  • Triazines / isolation & purification
  • Triazines / toxicity*
  • United States


  • Triazines
  • cyanuric acid
  • melamine