South Korea grapples rising cat deaths possibly due to food

A worrisome number of cats from South Korea recently died after suddenly developing some kind of neuromuscular illness.

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A worrisome number of cats from South Korea that recently died after suddenly developing some kind of neuromuscular illness has the government, cat owners and the veterinary practice looking out for the cause, with many suspecting a specific brand of local cat food as the culprit.

Life, a local animal activist group, reported that by late April 2024, some 263 cats exhibited neuromuscular disease symptoms such as lethargy, limping and kidney failure, and 100 of them have died already. The cats are of different breeds, and have varying living and medical profiles.

Both the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Korean Veterinary Medical Association (KVMA) have ongoing investigations to identify what's killing the cats. An interim report released by the ministry last on April 19, said no suspicious substances were found in three of the 36 cat food samples that were subjects of their investigations. The ministry said another 30 cat food products that could have been eaten by the deceased cats will be analyzed for harmful materials, seven viruses and two parasites. The tests are looking for 78 toxic substances from heavy metals, mycotoxin, pesticide residue, veterinary medicines and melamine.

The KVMA, along with animal rights advocates, want to expand the investigations to include imported cat food available in South Korea. The president of Life, Shim In-seop, said the Agriculture Ministry's report covered only 10% of the cat food samples. He said they will reach out to a U.S. pet food investigation institution to request an analysis of the samples.

“Voldemort” cat food

In South Korea's mobile messaging app called Kakao Talk, speculations run rife among cat owners who believe that the affected cats have eaten something from a major local pet food company between January and April this year.

In 2015, there were allegations that certain products from the same manufacturer caused cats to develop cystitis or the inflammation of the urinary bladder, which led to deaths. The government, however, gave it clearance and the manufacturer sued those who questioned their product's quality to protect their name. To avoid legal repercussions, Korean cat owners called it “Voldemort” cat food after the Harry Potter villain “who must not be named.”

Worried that the cause of the 2015 cat deaths could be connected with the latest ones, some cat owners demand that the suspected cat food brands be discontinued. The Agriculture Ministry, however, said they could halt sales and production only if they established that the products are indeed defective.

The company behind the “Voldemort” cat food said they are also awaiting the lab results and reports from KVMA's investigations. They own about 15 cat food labels produced by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs). These products are being exported to the U.S. and Canada as well.

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