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Pet food woes causing grief

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

By Martin Luttrell TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

Gregory Kontoes thought his yellow tiger cat, George, had been in a fight when he came inside the house in Webster nearly a month ago. Bleeding from the mouth and unsteady on his feet, the cat was weak and listless.

A few days later, the 12-year-old pet was euthanized after having been diagnosed with acute kidney failure and not responding to treatment.

Over the weekend, Mr. Kontoes learned of a recall of contaminated cat and dog food brands that may have contributed to George’s death, he said. The Special Kitty brand pouches of cat food he and his wife, Lisa, purchased at Wal-Mart in Oxford were among batches listed by Canadian pet food maker Menu Foods as having been suspected of contamination.

“We thought he had gotten into a fight,” he said. “He was all beat up and wobbly. The vet said he hadn’t been in a fight, but his mouth was full of ulcers. They did a blood test, and it showed a kidney infection. The numbers were off the chart.

“At first they believed he got into antifreeze. They had to put him down. He got sick on Feb. 24, and I brought him in on the 27th. He had lost two pounds. He went down quick. It wasn’t something that came on subtle. He was as strong as a tiger.”

Mr. Kontoes compared the UPC numbers on unopened pouches with information on Menu Foods’ Web site and found they were listed among those that should not be used. He had previously given some of the leftover pouches to his mother-in-law for her cat, which is being tested, he said.

In a separate case, June P. Randall of Auburn is still nervously waiting to see how her Siamese mix, Simba, responds to treatment at West Side Animal Clinic in Worcester. She also fed her 7-year-old cat from the three-ounce pouches of Special Kitty purchased at the Oxford Wal-Mart.

Although her veterinarian initially said the cat appeared to be in relatively good health, a blood test showed that he had acute kidney failure, the medical condition believed to be caused by the contaminated food.

Though there are no firm numbers of sick or dead dogs and cats, concerned pet owners are calling their veterinarians after learning about the recall, said Dr. Steven L. Rowell, director of the Henry and Lois Foster Small Animal Hospital at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton.

“We’ve been getting a number of calls,” he said. “It’s been difficult to get definitive information on what’s causing this. There’s been a lot of talk among veterinarians around the country on this. They’re seeing acute renal failure and a few deaths.

“It’s hard for us to put numbers on this all the way. From December to now we’ve seen 25 cases of acute renal failure. I don’t know how many of those are from eating this food. We know of a couple that were on that food.”

To determine if a dog or cat died from contaminated food would likely require an autopsy, said Dr. Rowell.

“We need to figure out if there were other issues,” he said. “There is a lot of investigation that needs to go on. Is this a toxin from some ingredient that was used? They’ve been looking at everything from ethyl glycol (used in antifreeze) to molds. If it’s ethyl glycol, you would see crystals in the urine.

“If you get onto it early enough, you can treat it,” he said.

He said various factors would determine how well a dog or cat would recover if affected by the food. The general health, amount of contaminant eaten and the size of the animal could be factors, he said.

“That’s one of the things we don’t know yet,” he said. “There’s something toxic in here, but we don’t know what is. So, right now we treat the symptoms.”

He said the treatment for acute kidney failure is intravenous fluids and monitoring kidney function.

That is what Simba has been undergoing since Monday, said Ms. Randall. She said she noticed about two weeks ago that her cat was not eating with his usual appetite, and drinking excessively from the water bowl of her daughter’s dog, which she was caring for.

“I thought he was probably nervous. He doesn’t like the dog,” she said. “He’s a good-sized cat, 12 pounds, and he wasn’t right. My other daughter called me on Monday and said I should ask about the food recall. His food was on the list. The vet said she wanted to keep him overnight. They did a blood test and X-rays, and the blood test showed kidney failure.

“She’s been giving him fluids. If his levels come down, I’ll be able to care for him at home, If not, I’ll have to make a decision.”

Dr. Erin M. Doyle, who is treating Simba, said most of the animals that have come to her clinic have been well, but a few have had kidney failure.

“Right now, there’s just a presumption that they ate the food, but were previously healthy. Right now, we don’t know what caused the problem. … IV fluid is the main treatment, just the same as a person would get in a hospital. It replaces body fluids and re-hydrates the animal. Giving fluids helps to filter out byproducts the kidneys are not able to do on their own.”

She said pet owners should watch for loss of appetite, excessive drinking and urinating, vomiting and lethargy. Mouth ulcers, though not common, can be a symptom of advanced kidney disease.

Menu Foods has published an advisory and list of affected brands and UPC numbers for food manufactured between Dec. 3 and March 6. Millions of containers of dog and cat food have been removed from store shelves after it was determined that food suspected of contamination had been distributed across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Lorraine M. Smith, associate veterinarian for the Oxford Animal Hospital, where George was treated and euthanized, said she was startled by the number and types of brands affected.

“We’ve had four (dogs and cats) that we know of that had the food,” she said. “There may be more that we haven’t found out about yet. … That’s why this is so terrible. It goes from no-name brands to Eukanuba and Iams.”

Menu Foods said the complaints of sick animals coincided with the introduction of an ingredient from a new supplier. The recall could cost $30 million to $40 million, the company said in a press release. The company has advised consumers to return affected brands to stores for a refund.

Some, like Ms. Randall, saved the pouches and are keeping them in hopes of being reimbursed for their veterinary bills.

Dr. Rowell advised that pet owners check their food against the list provided through Menu Foods or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If a pet is suspected of having been sickened, veterinarians can make their medical records available to help document the case, he said.

“I dug these out of the trash,” Ms. Randall said, pointing to four empty three-ounce pouches from food she had fed her cat.

Her daughter, Heather A. Zwirblia of Worcester, said she called Menu Foods’ hotline yesterday and was rudely told that the Special Kitty brand was not on the company’s list before the call taker hung up. The brand actually is on the list.

She said she tried back numerous times during the day and was hung up on. She tried again with a reporter present, and the call taker apologized for the way Ms. Zwirblia had been treated earlier and advised her to return unused food for a refund.

“That’s poor public relations,” Ms. Zwirblia said. The bill for the cat is going to be about $400. This is scary. This food has been going out since December. My hope is they will cover the vet bills.”

Mr. Kontoes agreed.

“We’ve been online with people all over the country, on blogs,” he said. “We’re going to try, nationally, to stick together. We can’t let this happen to our cats. A lot of people are putting up huge vet bills.

“It’s been two weeks. I’m comforted in the fact that George lived a long life. He was a very happy cat. He loved being outdoors. We do miss him.”

Contact business reporter Martin Luttrell by e-mail at mluttrell@telegram.com.


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