Local veterinarians and pet stores are at odds over a Food and Drug Administration advisory that warns pet owners to avoid purchasing pig ear treats for pets over concerns about salmonella.

“This isn’t a new, radical thing. We’ve kind of always known that pig ears are a possible carrier of salmonella,” said Dr. Sara Sholts, Baraboo Hill-Dale associate veterinarian, about the FDA alert. “It’s just kind of brought it to the forefront. It’s an opportunity to review that information.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on July 31 announced it recommends consumers refrain from buying or serving pig ear treats. The advisory came after some pet-food suppliers announced recalls of the product.

Although pig ears are generally intended for dogs, humans can be at risk for salmonella if they touch the recalled treats, and cats that lick the pig ears might also catch the bacterial infection, Sholts said.

“There’s always a concern when you treat an intestinal outbreak. Anybody can get salmonella,” said Dr. Michael Cooper of Portage Veterinary Clinic. “Good hygiene will go a long ways as far as stopping the transmission.”

As of July 31, 127 people in 33 affected states have reportedly been infected with salmonella in recent months, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation.

A total of four people in Wisconsin have contracted salmonella. States with the highest numbers of reported cases are Iowa, Michigan and New York.

A total of 26 ill people required hospitalization nationwide, but no deaths have been reported, according to the administration.

Local products

Tara Hellenbrand, owner of Animal House Pet Supplies in Sauk City, said her store sources all its pig ears from a producer in Orange City, Iowa.

“We know where everything we get is being sourced from,” Hellenbrand said, adding she trusts her supplier. “Shop local. Shop small.”

But she encouraged consumers to always moderate how many treats their dogs consume regardless of their quality, because pig ears have more fat and are greasier than other treats.

For those seeking alternatives, dry cow ears made from rawhide can serve as a substitute, Hellenbrand said.

Pets of Portage also has cow and lamb ear substitutes available to pet owners.

Scott Hurst owns Leroy Meats of Horicon, which also has a store in Fox Lake, and said his stores source their pig ears from local suppliers and other producers in the U.S. The meat producer also is certified to process food for human consumption.

After he first learned of the recalls, Hurst said he spoke to an FDA inspector who encouraged him to cook pig ears to help ensure bacteria are gone. Hurst said a federal inspector visits his markets every day.

“We have to meet very high standards,” Hurst said.

When processed correctly by local butchers and cooked to 160 degrees, Hurst said pig ears are safe for consumption.

Washing hands frequently and being careful about eating under-cooked meats is a rule of thumb, Hurst said.

Mixed messages

Dr. Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Madison, said he understands the blanket federal advisory might frustrate retailers, but he said the FDA cannot always track the exact source of every product.

This makes it more difficult to say which specific products are safe or unsafe when compared with others, he said.

Salmonella can survive in a hibernation state in low-moisture environments. Poulsen said it’s possible that once a dog begins chewing on an affected product, the bacteria may become active again.

A spokeswoman for the FDA said the agency and CDC have not identified any specific sources of pig ears as being safer than others.

While some human salmonella infections have been linked to pig ears imported from Argentina and Brazil, the agency has identified other sources in the outbreak.

“Pig ears in bulk bins (not packaged or wrapped) may be co-mingled from multiple sources, which does not allow the products to be distinguished. In addition, effective product irradiation may not have occurred for bulk products and for packaged or individually wrapped products,” the spokeswoman said.

Dr. Beth Poulsen of Lodi Veterinary Care said she recommends pet owners place any pig ear treats in their home in sealed containers or bags and dispose of them, rather than throwing the treats into garbage bins.

Beth and Keith Poulsen are married and emphasize to their children the importance of washing hands after handling animals and pet products.

Sholts, the Baraboo veterinarian, said disposing of pig ears carefully could help prevent wildlife from finding the treats and potentially spreading infections to people or other animals.

To determine if a person or pet has salmonella, doctors must test feces or blood in a culture dish, Keith Poulsen said.

Vomiting and diarrhea are symptoms of salmonella in pets, Cooper said, adding dogs that contract the infection often require hospitalization and IV fluids.

Cases of salmonella among dogs are rare, and not all get reported, he said. He’s seen about a dozen salmonella cases in dogs in his career.

“We are just asking our clients to be on the safe side,” Beth Poulsen said. “Salmonella is a nasty bug, and it can survive a lot of things.”

Antibiotic resistance

Federal agencies are concerned about the pig ears because the recent strains of salmonella infections traced to them have been resistant to antibiotics, Sholts said.

Due to tougher resistance, stronger medicines are required to treat infections, Beth Poulsen said.

“In the veterinary world, there is some concerns of resistance to antibiotics,” she said.

Joanne Maginniss and her husband, Leigh Maginniss, took their 12-week-old golden retriever puppy Ginger to Hill-Dale Veterinary Care in Baraboo on Thursday for a routine checkup.

The couple is from Arlington Heights, Illinois, and owns a summer home in La Valle.

Joanne Maginniss said they choose not to feed pig ear treats to their pets anymore because about 20 years ago, one of their dogs got a pig ear stuck in its throat.

Instead, she said they give their dogs synthetic Nylabone treats to chew on. Ginger also loves peanut butter.

Whether to heed the federal advisory about pig ears should be every consumer’s choice, Keith Poulsen said, adding consumers shouldn’t panic but should keep an eye out for more information in the weeks to come.

Keith Poulsen said he won’t risk bringing pig ears into his house where small children are present. Until further information comes to light, he said he intends to play it safe and recommends others consider doing the same.