Your family’s beloved “Fluffy” has gotten sick after eating a certain food, and neither you nor your veterinarian is sure if that food, or something else, is the cause. What happened? And is your animal the only one that’s sick, or are there others?

Vet-LIRN (Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network), a program from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), is a special network that connects laboratories around the country looking for clues that might solve animal illness mysteries. Vet-LIRN allows FDA to partner with state and university Diagnostic Laboratories.

Vet-LIRN typically works with animal owners and their veterinarians to investigate cases of potential foodborne illness, most often in pets. What an animal eats, whether it’s a pet or an animal raised as a food source, may affect you. In some cases, pets can contract salmonella from the food they eat without getting sick; however, the germs can spread to people who handle contaminated food or stool. 

Just as the FDA investigates foodborne illnesses for human food, Vet-LIRN helps investigate those for animal foods. If a food or treat is found to carry dangerous bacteria or contain harmful ingredients, Vet-LIRN may investigate further. Some investigations have explored nutritional imbalances linked to illness. 

When people get sick, their health care providers may do tests and then provide information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to investigate the cause of the illness. Vet-LIRN acts like a CDC for animals by investigating animal illnesses. What Vet-LIRN learns through its work helps to protect the health of your animal—and perhaps your family—as well. 

How Does Vet-LIRN Work?

The process starts when you or your veterinarian reports a food or drug related illness to the FDA. Simply search  “Report a Problem to the FDA”  to find the phone number or the website for FDA’s Safety Reporting Portal.

FDA veterinarians review each complaint and determine whether it should be referred to Vet-LIRN for follow up. If your case is referred, Vet-LIRN may contact you for more information. While each investigation is tailored to the case at hand, in general, Vet-LIRN reviews the pet’s medical records, including a history of what they ate. Vet-LIRN may ask for food samples (e.g. hay, seed, kibble, treats, etc.), so be sure to save them after submitting your complaint. 

In addition to reviewing any test results already done by your veterinarian, Vet-LIRN may ask your veterinarian to collect diagnostic samples (blood, urine, and/or tissue). In these cases: 

  • Vet-LIRN can cover certain testing costs when investigating the case. 
  • Vet-LIRN tests the sample at one of its 43 labs across the U.S. and Canada, and reports the findings to the attending veterinarian to share with the owner. 
  • If Vet-LIRN staff determine that further FDA regulatory testing is needed, they may request that owners hold any open or unopened food product so that they can test it. In that case, a coordinator from the FDA office in your district will contact the owner directly.

Why Report an Adverse Event to Vet-LIRN? 

The Center for Veterinary Medicine protects animal health by regulating animal drugs and animal food (including treats), and food additives. The Center is responsible for overseeing that animal food manufacturers produce food that is safe and accurately labeled, as well as produced in a sanitary manner. 

Despite the Center’s regulatory measures, some animal foods do get contaminated or contain dangerous ingredients not listed on the ingredient list. For example Vet-LIRN investigated an animal food-related illness involving a commercial pet food that was contaminated with a prescription drug. 

According to Vet-LIRN Director Renate Reimschuessel, V.M.D., Ph.D., five dogs acted dizzy and started falling over suddenly within 15 minutes of eating the food. One dog was immediately taken to the vet, but, unfortunately, could not be saved. “Because the pet owner reported these events to us and allowed us to do an autopsy, we were able to test the stomach contents, which contained the prescription drug later found in the dog food.” This rapid response likely saved the lives of many other pets.

“No one wants to imagine the worst happening, but if it does and your animal dies, you may well want to know the cause,” she adds. “And by reporting your experiences and allowing Vet-LIRN to work on your case, you may help prevent other pets from getting sick.”  

In every case, your information adds to FDA’s body of knowledge about animal food, how it is made and marketed. In some cases the findings may lead to inspections or recalls.

Most of Vet-LIRN’s work is with pets. But according to Reimschuessel, “We’ve had birds, fish, spiders, cows—any type of animal that eats any food the FDA regulates.” She adds, “Whether it’s your dog or your iguana that gets sick, the FDA wants to make sure it wasn’t caused by the food, or if it was, that FDA can take appropriate actions.”