By Serena Gordon
WEDNESDAY, March 21, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Pet owners care deeply about what their furry family members eat. So should they worry about a new study that finds chemical preservatives known as parabens are often in dog and cat food, as well as in urine samples from the animals?
Maybe, researchers say, though there's no need to panic.
"Parabens are reported as endocrine-disrupting chemicals," said the study's senior author, Kurunthachalam Kannan.
These preservatives can interfere with hormones and may have harmful effects on developmental, reproductive and neurological systems, explained Kannan. He's with the New York state Department of Health's division of environmental health sciences.
But the levels of parabens and their by-products found in pets are low, according to the new study.
"The current exposure levels of parabens and their metabolites in cats and dogs are 100- to 1,000-fold less than the tolerable daily intake limits," Kannan said. However, the safe levels were based on research in humans, and it's possible that pets are more sensitive, he added.
The researchers pointed out that diseases -- such as diabetes, kidney diseases and thyroid problems -- have been rising in pets that primarily stay indoors compared to those who live outside exclusively. And some scientists have proposed that chemical exposures in the home could play a role in these illnesses.
So far, no studies have confirmed any harmful effects from paraben exposure, according to Kannan. In addition, there aren't any specific paraben regulations for pets.
The United States has the largest population of pets in the world, the study authors said. There are about 1.5 dogs in every American household and about two cats. Americans spent nearly $67 billion on their pets in 2016. About 42 percent of that total was spent on pet food.
Chemicals or additives -- even things like antioxidants -- can only be added to pet food if they are "generally recognized as safe" or if they've undergone a rigorous safety review, said Dr. Robert Poppenga. He is a veterinarian with the California Animal Health and Food Safety lab at the University of California, Davis.
"Food makers can't just add things willy-nilly into animal feeds," he said. The Association of American Feed Control Officials develops guidelines for what goes into pet foods, as well as to animal feed.
Poppenga added that parabens are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the FDA considers them generally safe.
For the study, researchers purchased 23 dog food products and 35 cat food products from local stores in the Albany, N.Y., area. There were 10 brands of dog food and 13 brands of cat food, both wet and dry.
The foods were made in the United States, Canada and Thailand, according to the study.
All the foods were tested for parabens or their metabolites. The researchers also tested 30 dog urine samples and 30 cat urine samples for parabens and their metabolites.
Parabens and their metabolites were found in all of the food and urine samples. The paraben "methyl paraben" was the most abundant in the samples.
Dry food contained higher amounts of parabens than wet food, and cat foods had higher concentrations than dog foods. However, dogs had more intake of parabens than cats did, the study found.
Cats were mainly exposed to parabens from their food, while dogs were also exposed to parabens from other sources, such as drug supplements and cosmetics, the findings showed.
What all this means isn't clear. The researchers said more study is needed, particularly to see if these chemicals are associated with any negative health effects.
For animal owners who would like to avoid parabens in their pet's food, Poppenga said there are likely some alternative choices that don't have the chemicals.
"There are a lot of pet foods out there -- maybe there are all-natural alternatives. The foods for sale that are refrigerated probably have less added into them," he said.
The study was published online recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.