Reports of illnesses and deaths linked to Menu Foods' tainted dog and cat food continue to rise nationwide -- far more than the 16 confirmed cases reported by the Federal Drug Administration -- while some scientists question the widely reported findings that rat poisoning may be to blame for the outbreak.
The Veterinarians Information Network, a Web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, says its members have reported 471 cases of kidney failure in the 12 days since Menu Foods of Canada recalled 60 million containers of "cuts and gravy" style cat and dog foods tainted with rat poisoning.
More than 95 brands -- sold throughout North America under store and private labels -- are involved in the massive recall.
"The 16 (cases) the FDA confirms is barely the tip of the iceberg," the network's co-founder, veterinarian Paul Pion, told The Los Angeles Times. "There will be much more than this."
Pion says veterinarians have reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated pet food. The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats. The Web site has also received 11 reports of dogs dying after eating Menu Foods' products. The remaining deaths did not list a species.
Veterinarians also reported that 59 pets have survived illnesses linked to the recalled food and 129 animals are still undergoing treatment.
The Web site PetConnection.com says that -- as of March 27, 2007 -- it had received nearly 2,000 reports of pets dying after eating Menu's contaminated food. Those reports came from pet owners and are not confirmed cases.
Scientists have identified the contamination in Menu's dog and cat foods as a rat poison called aminopterin. The company is investigating how that toxin got into its food supply, but the FDA suspects the culprit might be the wheat gluten Menu imports from China.
But is rat poisoning the real cause for these pets' illnesses and death?
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) isn't so sure. Based on data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed, the animal rights group suspects other contaminants might be involved.
"Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA stated in a release issued March 27, 2007.
"We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure," said Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA. "But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."
Dr. Hansen says animals poisoned with aminopterin -- which is used to treat humans with cancer -- should have additional symptoms.
"To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he says. "This is the missing connection that we want to alert veterinarians around the country to.
He adds: "There are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected, that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants. Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."
Pet Owners' Stories
The widespread reports of illness and death among cats and dogs mirror the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received from pets owners across the country, who says their dogs or cats became sick or died after eating Menu Foods tainted products.
"My cat, Murphy has been in the hospital for three days now," says Victoria Olsen of Federal Way, WA., "He experienced the same symptoms as the cats I have read about. He quit eating, drank water to excess, and was always in the litter box."
This is a cat, she says, that nearly died two years ago.
"He survived being caught for 28 days in a neighbor's animal trap. He suffered a crushed hind leg, lost more than half of his body weight, and still managed to drag himself home. It took awhile, but he came back and was back to normal.
"Now, after eating contaminated Authority brand pet food, he has lost all of the weight he gained back and is in renal failure."
A cat owner in Texas says her pet is also battling kidney problems. And she blames the sudden illness on Menu Foods.
"My cat, Munchie, has become very ill with kidney failure after eating Special Kitty, one of the foods listed on the pet food recall," says Ann, of Springs, Texas. "She has always been a healthy cat, who we loving referred to as 'fat cat.' Now my 'fat cat' is a skinny cat who is in the animal hospital trying to get well ... the vet say she will need to be on a special diet, with medications, for the rest of her life."
We've also received complaints about pets dying after eating Menu Foods' products.
"I had been feeding my cat the pouches of Special Kitty sold at Wal-Mart (and included in the recall)," says Vickie S. of Clifton Forge, VA. "My cat seemed to go downhill very rapidly. She stopped eating, drinking, and was very lethargic. By the time I was able to get her to the vet, she was in acute renal failure with complications in her pancreas and liver.
"The vet did not give a good prognosis for her recovery, and I had to make the decision to have her mercifully euthanized."
At the time, Menu Foods hadn't announced its recall.
The news shocked and devastated Vickie.
"I had been unknowingly poisoning my beloved pet the whole time," she says. "Due to this poisoning, vet bills of approximately $400.00 were incurred that would have otherwise been unnecessary and I would still have my loving companion."
A dog owner in Illinois says his "best friend" became gravely ill and had to be put to sleep after eating some of the tainted food.
"My dog was my child and has been with me for 13 plus years," says Dave O., of Lisle, Illinois. "The amount of pain I am going through for the loss of my best friend is indescribable."
Dave says he hopes his dog didn't die in vain.
"The void left is immeasurable, but we want to make sure that something good comes out of this ... be it more strict policies on food quality or money that can go to help other animals in need."
Some pet owners also told us their dogs and cats became sick after eating other brands of pet food.
Their pets, they say, had symptoms similar to those who at the contaminated foods. And they now wonder if the recall should extend beyond Menu Foods.
"I use 22 ounce cans of Pedigree dog food and mix it in with my dog's dry food," says Jill C. of Minden, NV. "She was sick for approximately five to six days, lethargic, had diarrhea, and vomited a couple of times."
After a few days on dry food, her dog's condition improved.
"So I again mixed in some wet food and she threw it all up," Jill says. "I've stopped feeding her any canned Pedigree what-so-ever.
"My concern is 'how does anyone at this point know if it's just Menu Foods that has a problem?'"
A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available on Menu Food's Web site: www.menufoods.com/recall or contact the company at (866) 463-6738 or (866) 895-2708.
Pet owners should immediately contact their veterinarians if they notice any signs of illness in their animals after eating the recalled foods, including loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in water consumption, or changes in urination.
Reports of Dog, Cat Deaths Continue to Rise...