Has anyone else discovered the irony in Natural Balance’s botulism-tainted canned food? One of the recalled brands was the “Chinese Take-Out” version of their Eatables for Dogs. Who would leave that brand on the shelf after all we’ve been through?

Luckily, botulism isn’t known to be as big a toxin among pets as in our own bodies. In fact, there’s never been a reported case of botulism in cats. And dogs are remarkably resistant. One notable exception, however, is the ferret. They’re highly susceptible to the toxin.

Though humans are considered the big risk when it comes to this toxin, I’ve noticed that most people have no clue what botulism is or how it affects us. Beyond a tenuous grasp of the notion of botulism paralysis (thanks to the notoriety of wrinkle-easing Botox injections) and an innate fear of dented cans at the supermarket, what do you really know?

So here’s a brief primer:

Botulism is a rare illness caused by a nerve toxin produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. Because it can be fatal, docs tend to make a big deal out of it. This is especially true of the foodborne variety (where large numbers of individuals may be exposed). Infant and wound botulism are other forms of the disease but I won’t be addressing these.

Once a susceptible species has consumed the toxin (usually via contaminated food, but in at least one famous instance by injecting lab-grade botulism instead of the watered-down Botox), symptoms appear usually within 12 to 24 hours (though the incubation period varies as widely as 2 hours to 2 weeks). Progressive paralysis is the hallmark, but generalized weakness, difficulty swallowing and changes in vision is as far as some cases progress. It all depends on the individual’s resistance and the dose.

If it isn’t caught early, botulism can progress to paralysis of respiratory and cardiac muscles. That’s ultimately how it kills its victims. Respirators, cardiac drugs and other forms of supportive care are the mainstay of treatment, but antitoxin can be administered in the early stages—before the toxin has exacted its full toll on the nervous system.

For the record, I’ve never seen a botulism case. If I did, I’d probably assume the animal had rabies before considering botulism—it’s that rare in pets. But that doesn’t mean a big dose from eating several contaminated cans in a row won’t overwhelm an animal’s system and wreak its havoc.

While this scare hasn’t exactly done much to improve our confidence in the safety of our food source (human food was also produced by this manufacturer and was found to be contaminated as well), I haven’t heard of any pets coming down with botulism as a result.

I know we’re all scared—and justifiably so—but this seems a much more isolated incident than the wholesale ingredient contamination of the past few months. But as we all know, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over…