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Putting a Price on Puppy Love

By BILL MCGUIRE March 20, 2007 — Millions of Americans treat their pets as family. Now a growing number of pet owners are taking that love to an entirely different, more litigious level.

Reports of pets killed or injured by toxic pet food are on the rise and so are the stakes for animal owners and pet-food makers.

The pet-food recall initiated during the weekend by Menu Foods of Canada — covering more than 100 brands — comes on the heels of food poisonings last year that killed 75 dogs.

In January 2006, Diamond Pet Foods recalled about 20 brands after pets died from a toxic fungus, aflatoxin, in the food. The cause of the latest sicknesses from Menu products are still under investigation but may be tied to tainted wheat gluten in the food.

S&M NuTec, the makers of Greenies dog chews, is the subject of a $5 million suit brought by New Yorkers Michael Eastwood and Jennifer Reiff. They allege that the green chewy treats killed their 4-year-old miniature dachshund in 2005 because the material went undigested in the animal's intestine.

They sued after S&M NuTec e-mailed them a settlement offer of $8,587. The offer was meant to cover veterinary costs and the replacement of the dog, the company said in the e-mail.

Alan Sash, a lawyer at McLaughlin & Stern LLP in New York City who represents the New York couple, is seeking class-action status in a Missouri court on behalf of 10 pet owners in eight states connected to the Greenies poisonings.

"A lot of people feel that pets who are companions should have more value to them legally than what has been the case in the past," Sash said. "It's exceedingly difficult for the average pet owner to take a case like this to court, which is why we are seeking class-action status."

Sash said he expected hearings in the case to begin this summer.

In instances where pets have died because of negligence, economic value has generally ranged from several hundred dollars for a mixed breed animal to several thousand dollars for a pure breed, Sash said.

In addition, pet owners are typically entitled to costs incurred in connection with the death of the animal.

For pet-food makers like Menu Foods, the publicity from the recall can have consequences. The company's shares fell as much as 43 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange after news of the recall was announced. Menu has said the recall will cost it as much as $40 million.

Telephone calls to Diamond and S&M NuTec weren't immediately returned. Diamond's Web site carries a large notice stating: "ATTENTION: Diamond Pet Foods dry and canned products are in no way associated with the Menu Foods March 2007 recall."

Menu Foods spokeswoman Sarah Tuite said the company can't comment on compensation for pet owners at this time. She does, however, advise pet owners to hold onto all documentation and packaging. The company will be posting new information on its web site soon.

Some pet owners who bought the food are angry that Menu didn't act faster to tell consumers. Ronald Finegold of Boyton Beach, Fla., whose cat became severely ill from the Iams food that was recalled, said he was concerned that manufacturers might put money first.

"These big companies, for them it's an economic thing," he said. "Why rush to tell the public? I suspect it comes down to the millions of dollars involved in a recall versus a relatively small number of pets."

Finegold says that as many as four weeks ago he went to three stores to buy the particular brand and flavor that his cat prefers, but each store was out of stock.

"I got to thinking later that the maker may have simply stopped shipping the affected products, but didn't say anything to the public about the stuff people had already bought," he said.

Menu Foods told the Food and Drug Administration that it had received the initial complaints of kidney failure and deaths among cats and dogs from pet owners on Feb. 20 and had started tests on Feb. 27.

The New York couple that sued S&M NuTec set up a Web site,, for pet owners to share information about products and the safe care of their animals. They hope it will become a clearinghouse for pet issues.

The costs of pet ownership are rising. In many areas, people spend $1,000 or more annually, even on healthy animals. According to Consumer Reports, the average dog cost owners $785 a year in 2005 and the average cat, $516. But that's just the start.

Medical care can cost many thousands more. Each year, about 400 pets receive pacemaker surgery costing about $3,000.

Renal failure, the chief symptom in the latest food poising case, can cost up to $10,000 in vet bills, plus $600 a year for drugs thereafter.

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