A U.S. chain of veterinary clinics estimates as many as 39,000 dogs and cats were injured by eating tainted pet food manufactured by Menu Foods. The estimate, much higher than previous ones, is based on analysis of its database linking 615 pet hospitals and clinics.
According to the analysis by Banfield, The Pet Hospital, which it shared with the Food and Drug Administration, three out of every 10,000 dogs and cats that ate the contaminated product developed kidney failure. Banfield said the diagnosis of kidney failure in cats rose 30 percent during the three months when the contaminated pet food was sold.
At the same time, the numbers show very little increase in kidney failure among canines, suggesting the toxin in the pet food was a more serious problem for cats than dogs.
At least six pet food manufacturers have recalled products over concerns that the toxin originated in wheat gluten imported from China. The FDA says about one percent of the pet food supply in the U.S. has been withdrawn.
The FDA has said injury estimates based on Banfield's database are likely "authoritative." So far, the agency has confirmed only 16 deaths from an estimated 3,000 cases.
ConsumerAffairs.com continues to hear from dog and cat owners about illnesses and deaths in their animals. And not all these illnesses and deaths are linked to products included in the recall of nearly 100 brands of pet food and treats.
Pet owner John S. of Little Rock, Arkansas, says his Cocker Spaniel became ill after eating Purina dry Dog Chow, which is not being recalled. John says the problems started last October.
"Our Cocker Spaniel had her first seizure in that month," he says, adding his dog hadn't had any previous problems with the food. "Since then, she had another seizure in March, which lasted longer than the first." His dog also developed a large rash after eating the dry Purina Dog Chow, he says.
"(It) covered her entire stomach and seemed to get worse as time went by. We took her to the vet and he ran a blood test on her and did a check-up, telling us she did not have worms or seem to have any other problems to cause the seizures.
"As far as the rash went, her white blood cell count was sky high and she was very sick," John says. "He (the vet) thought it might be an allergy, but was not sure ... and decided to put her on antibiotics for a week."
But the medication didn't help the rash. John says his dog's condition didn't improve until he stopped feeding her the dry Purina Dog Chow.
"The rash has cleared up a lot in the past three days . . . since she stopped eating the food," he says, adding he took her off that dry food even though it wasn't included in the recall. "And she seems to feel a lot better ... not sleeping all the time like she was. I don't know if the food caused the seizures as Cockers are know to have epilepsy, but the date when she had her first seizure dates back to the same month that the tainted pet food supposedly hit the shelves.
"I just hope if there is something wrong with this food, they take it off the shelves."
Another pet owner told us her dog became gravely ill -- and had to be put to sleep -- after eating Nutro dry food. That food isn't included in the recall, either.
Pet owner Judy R. of Williamston, South Carolina, also says she occasionally fed her Maltese two products that are part of the recall: Ol'Roy treats and Mighty Dog in pouches.
"The last canned food that I used was Mighty Dog pouches while traveling from South Carolina to Mississippi," Judy says. "My little Maltese, Angel, got really sick ... I took her to the vet and the blood work showed that she had been poisoned."
And with a specific type of poison: rat poison.
New York Agriculture officials said they discovered the rat poison, aminopterin, in some of the wheat gluten used to make the contaminated pet foods.
Judy wonders if there's a connection between all the pet food and treats her dog ate -- and Angel's rapidly declining condition.
Her veterinarian recommended one final option for Angel -- a complete blood transfusion.
"(But) Angel weighed three pounds, seven ounces, and the vet said that she had a 20 percent chance of making it through a transfusion," Judy said. "Angel was so very sick and we opted to have her put to sleep.
"This had been so very hard for our family, especially my nine-year-old daughter. I would like to find out if this (eating these pet foods and treats) could possibly have caused the death of our little Maltese."
Senate Hearing Scheduled
"Many cats, dogs and other pets, considered members of the family are now suffering as a result of a deeply flawed pet food inspection system," Durbin said in a press release. "The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) response to this situation has been tragically slow. Pet owners deserve answers. The uncertainty about what is safe to feed their pets has gone on far too long.
"I want to learn exactly when the FDA knew about the contamination, who is inspecting pet food manufacturing plants, and whether we need to force the FDA to update their regulations to protect our pets. Most importantly, I want to hear how the FDA is going to work to resolve the current crisis and ensure this doesn't happen again," Durbin said.
Witnesses expected to be called for the hearing later this week include FDA officials who will be questioned on the timeline of the investigation, the source of the contamination, and the agency's regulatory and inspection responsibilities.
Other witnesses expected to testify include outside experts who will discuss the current state of the pet food industry and regulatory or resource shortfalls that led to the widespread recall of tainted pet food.
Durbin said he will urge the FDA to take action in three specific areas:
• Reporting delays -- Menu Foods first noticed a potential problem on February 20, 2007, but did not contact the FDA until March 15, 2007, the Senator's office pointed out. In the meantime, other companies were selling tainted product and the supplier didn't know it had provided wheat gluten contaminated with the chemical, melamine. Durbin wants companies that delay reporting to the FDA and endanger human and animal health to face penalties.
• Lack of inspections -- The Emporia, Kansas, Menu Foods facility where many of the tainted products were made had never been inspected by the FDA, the Senator said. According to Durbin, the agency relied on the states to conduct inspections. But the FDA has jurisdiction over all pet food manufacturing facilities and the ultimate responsibility to ensure facilities comply with FDA standards, the Senator said. Where there should be federal regulation, there is instead a patchwork of state inspection systems and voluntary guidance, he said. Durbin wants to require the FDA to work with the states to establish a standardized set of regulations and inspection requirements.
• Incomplete data and reporting from the FDA -- Blogs and Web sites have filled a gap and become the most efficient way to share information on the pet food contamination, Durbin said. The Senator wants to direct the FDA to create a similar information sharing system that would allow state veterinarians, pet owners, and others to alert the FDA of possible contaminations.
Durbin is working with Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, on the hearing.
Witnesses expected to testify are:
• Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, D.V.M, Ph.D., Director, Center for Veterinary Medicine, Food and Drug Administration;
• Duane Ekedahl, Executive Director, Pet Food Institute;
• Eric Nelson, President, American Association of Feed Control Officers,
• Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, Veterinarian;
• Dr. Claudia A. Kirk, Associate Professor of Medicine and Nutrition, University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.
In a related development, Durbin and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) sent a letter on March 26, 2007, to the Commissioner of the FDA requesting the agency provide:
• Information on the number of pet food manufacturing inspections and violations;
• A detailed timeline of the situation;
• An analysis of the FDA's oversight of pet food manufacturing facilities;
• And a report of action taken since the recent pet food recall.
A response is due by April 10, 2007.