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Sick As a Dog -- It's Not Just Cantaloupes, Dog Food Is Blamed for Many Illnesses

Sick As a Dog -- It's Not Just Cantaloupes, Dog Food Is Blamed for Many Illnesses

Critics say FDA has "a poor track record" of assuring the safety of food, human and otherwise

August 28th, 2012 by James R. Hood of ConsumerAffairs in News

ConsumerAffairs readers are long accustomed to stories like this one, from Jill of Lawrence, Kan.: "I picked up a bag of Nutro Max Senior to try for my aging collie. At first, I didn't see any problems, but she became progressively sick[er], throwing up at least once a day and becoming lethargic. The only thing that had changed in her life was her food.

"I stopped giving the collie this apparently toxic food, bought her familiar Science Diet, and all is well again. Shame on dog food manufacturers for not learning from the lessons of the past! We will never buy Nutro Max again."

Case closed?

There's no question that contaminated pet food can make pets sick, as a long history of recalls and pet illnesses and deaths indicates. But are consumers too quick to blame the food when their pet falls ill? Some veterinarians think so, including Bernadette Dunham, D.V.M., Ph.D., director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA).

The FDA has been in the middle of countless disputes over whether a pet food is to blame for animal illnesses, but in a recent FDA blog posting, Dunham says it is often difficult to pin down the cause of a specific pet's malady.

She offers these suggestions to pet owners:

  1. Contact your veterinarian right away if your pet gets sick. Be ready to describe the symptoms and keep track of how soon after your pet's last meal or snack they occurred.

  2. Always keep the original label or packaging of whatever you are feeding your pets. If you buy a large bag of feed and scoop it into a smaller container, be sure to save the original. The FDA needs not only the brand name but the lot number and other information that is only available from the label.

  3. Report the incident to the FDA, either at its website or by calling the consumer complaint coordinator in your state. Contact information is available online. 

Of course, none of this does much good for someone whose beloved pet is in extremis. It's already too late for them.

"Purina SmartBlend Lamb and Rice killed my dog," said Lisa of Wichita, Kan. She said her one of her dogs became ill and was undergoing treatment when her second dog began refusing to eat. 

"The vet came out again, gave more meds and he was doing better. That night, he died," Lisa said. "I called Purina after I began researching and found that many other dogs became sick and/or died while on this food. Of course, I heard the, 'This is the first time we have ever heard of it.' They promised to reimburse my vet fees. I am still waiting. I even sent them a sample of the food. I called not too long ago and they closed my case."

Critics: FDA is lax

The FDA is with you all the way, Dunham assures us but not everyone agrees. Sarah Alexander, the education and outreach director of Food & Water Watch, a Ralph Nader-founded consumer organization, says the FDA "has a poor track record of ensuring the safety of food from China for people and pets."

"Despite the flood of reports of dogs dying from imported dog treats going back as far as 2007, the FDA has done nothing to fix the problem," Alexander said in a recent email to the organization's supporters.

Alexander quotes a pet owner named Rita, who experienced problems similar to those so familiar to ConsumerAffairs readers: "Heidi was a happy and healthy 8-year-old German Shepherd on May 23, 2012 when I gave her just two chicken jerky dog treats as a 'special' treat. Within two days she became ill, vomiting and diarrhea and lethargy, refusing all food but drinking water excessively. On Memorial Day, May 28, 2012, Heidi died a horrific death in my arms. The void her passing has left in my life is almost unbearable. I live alone and Heidi was my constant companion, my loyal friend, my fierce protector."

The FDA regulates the import of pet food and processed human food, but Alexander and other critics contend the agency has done too little to stop contaminated food from China from being sold in the U.S.

"This isn't the first time that tainted pet food from China has harmed our pets," Alexander noted. "Just a few years ago thousands of pets became sick and died after eating pet food contaminated with melamine, and right now there are more than 60 human food products that are banned from being imported from China because of unsafe substances, including milk products contaminated with melamine."

Alexander notes that the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress last year has not yet been implemented. And just as critics say the Obama Administration's failure to adopt the rules in a timely manner is responsible for the current outbreak of salmonella contamination in cantaloupes, it is also being blamed for the failure to adequately regulate pet food. 

President Obama signed the bill into law in January 2011 and final standards were supposed to have been enacted within 12 months. But 19 months later, the standards are in limbo, awaiting final action by -- who else? -- the FDA.