There's still no definitive explanation for the health problems that scores of dogs and cats across the country have recently experienced after eating Nutro pet food. One expert says the illnesses are "not consistent" and not likely caused by the food. But others are not so sure.
Dr. Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist who manages the Animal Poison Control Center for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), agreed to review the complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received about Nutro pet food.
We gave Dr. Hansen unprecedented access to our complaint files in an effort to find out why so many pets have become sick — or even died — after eating Nutro food.
"Unfortunately the cases are not consistent and appear to be anecdotal with no real definitive diagnostic findings," Dr. Hansen told us. "Without any consistent trends in findings we can not do anything any further. This does appear to us to be a situation where bad things happen, but they are not likely food-related."
But another veterinarian, this one in South Carolina, suspects Nutro's food may have played a role in the May 22nd death of a dog that was under her care.
She is trying to find an independent lab to test the food and confirm her suspicions.
As a precaution, this veterinarian has told her local police chief to stop feeding Nutro to the dogs on the city's K-9 Unit.
In other developments:
• ConsumerAffairs.com continues to receive complaints about Nutro food and its possible connection to the illnesses and death dogs and cats nationwide. In the past three months, we have received more than 150 complaints from worried pet owners, many of them longtime Nutro customers;
• ConsumerAffairs.com has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for all the complaints the agency has received in recent months about Nutro food. Despite a Freedom of Information request, the FDA has not yet produced the complaints, which were gathered by public employees at taxpayers' expense and are a matter of public record ;
• Nutro Products Inc. is closing down and laying off a total of 118 employees in City of Industry, California, according to a story posted on CoStar.com.
• A pet safety organization recently tested the Nutro food that two puppies in North Carolina ate before they died in June. The group, Pet Food Products Safety Alliance, tested the food for salmonella and e-coli. The samples were negative for those specific toxins.
Nutro has posted a statement on its Web site claiming a recent ConsumerAffairs.com story falsely reported that its food had caused some pets to become sick. "Every NUTRO product that was analyzed in relation to the June 23 posting on ConsumerAffairs.com has been shown to be safe," the company wrote in response to our story.
In fact, the story in question said, "A series of mysterious illness and death dogs Nutro pet food. Scores of pet owners report their animals became ill while eating Nutro products, then recovered when they were switched to another brand." It did not directly attribute the reports to Nutro products.
As we've reported, scores of healthy pets across the country — and even some in Hawaii and Italy — have recently experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems.
One common link among these dogs and cats is the brand of food they've eaten: Nutro.
Many pet owners who've written to us report that their pets' conditions immediately improved once they stopped eating Nutro.
An analysis of our complaints also revealed that at least seven healthy dogs have died after eating Nutro food. The owners suspect — but cannot prove — that Nutro's food played a role in their pets' deaths.
Former Nutro employees confirm that they have heard similar complaints about the company's food.
Several pet owners, they said, told them their dogs and cats had experienced the same types of health problems: diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy.
The former employees reported their concerns to their supervisors, but said they were ignored. That's why they resigned.
Nutro, however, has repeatedly defended its food, saying it's "100 percent safe."
Cause still unknown
But if nothing is wrong with the food, why are so many pets getting sick after eating Nutro's products?
That's the mystery we hoped Dr. Hansen could help us solve.
He reviewed more than 50 complaints about Nutro, focusing on the cases in which pet owners had taken their dogs or cats to a vet. But those complaints, he said, revealed a myriad of illnesses.
"Right now, it looks like a mixture of reported clinical signs that reflect normal illnesses in the dog population," he said. "They don't speak to something consistently wrong with the pet food.
"Honestly, it is entirely possible that what we're seeing here (in these complaints) is a raised awareness of reporting illnesses."
In other words, pet owners are more aware of possible illnesses in their dogs and cats — probably because of the pet food recall.
What's Dr. Hansen's advice to worried pet owners?
"Speak to Nutro and your vet about your pets' illnesses. But based on what we see in these complaints, we don't suspect the food is related to these cases."
He added: "I appreciate you looking into these complaints. If we don't look at them, then we don't know what's going on. It's a good thing to ask questions and keep an eye out. And if there is a consistent pattern, then we need to keep looking. I'd rather have us be a little cautious than miss something serious."
Meanwhile, a veterinarian in South Carolina is trying to solve her own mystery regarding Nutro.
Dr. Calley Hille suspects that food may have played a role in the recent death of one of her client's dogs — a 13-year-old German Shepherd named Elvis.
That healthy dog, she said, died one week after his owner switched him to Nutro's food with glucosamine. And he showed worrisome symptoms immediately after he ate the food.
"Within 20 minutes after eating the food, he started vomiting," Dr. Hille said.
A couple hours later, Elvis started having violent seizures.
"The next morning, his owners brought him in and we drew blood," she said. "The blood work indicated he had some type of food poisoning. He was vomiting, had diarrhea, and elevated pancreatic enzymes."
Dr. Hille immediately took Elvis off Nutro. A few days later, his owners found him in a puddle of water. They rushed him to Dr. Hille's office.
"I initiated CPR and also did a cardiac massage. I tried to pump his heart with my hands."
Despite her efforts, Elvis died.
"He was a healthy older dog," Dr. Hille said. "He was a beautiful 13-year-old German Shepherd. I wanted to know exactly what happened to Elvis. I wanted to know why he died."
That's why — with the owner's permission — she had the state vet do an autopsy on Elvis.
"I expected the necropsy to maybe show that he had a brain tumor, but he didn't have any neurological signs associated with that," Dr. Hille said.
Autopsy raises questions
The autopsy revealed that Elvis died of internal bleeding — apparently from a hematoma on his spleen. The findings surprised Dr. Hille — and raised more questions.
"The state vet couldn't give me any reason for Elvis to have a hematoma on his spleen," she said. "He also said there was no biological reason for Elvis to have had the seizures."
Dr. Hille, however, has a theory.
"In my opinion, the seizures caused the hematoma. It takes a blunt force for those to happen and Elvis had violent seizures. At one point, he was throwing himself against a wall. The seizures are what made the spleen start to bleed."
But what caused Elvis' sudden seizures? Could his pet food be a factor?
"It's most certainly possible that food poisoning could cause seizures," Dr. Hille said. "I'm not laying my credentials on the line and saying that Nutro caused them, but it makes sense."
She added: "Could it be a coincidence that Elvis died a week after he started eating the food? Yes. But no one can show me what that coincidence is. I asked the state vet why Elvis had the hematoma. He said he didn't know. I asked him why he had the seizures. He said he didn't know."
The state vet did not test for any toxins in Elvis' system. "I don't know why," Dr. Hille said.
But it makes her even more determined to test the food — and hopefully solve this mystery.
"We highly suspect there's a connection between the Nutro food and Elvis' seizures, which ultimately caused his death," she said. "His blood work showed signs of reaction to food. I think we can prove that if we test the food.
"But the state of South Carolina will not test it. They don't do that anymore. My problem is I don't know what to test for. I need to look into what toxins cause seizures."
There may be another culprit involved in this mystery — one that should also be tested.
"It's certainly possible that there is something in the (pet food) bags, especially if they're sitting in storage," Dr. Hille said. "If something is in the bag, the food is going to absorb it."
If those tests come back negative, is it possible that Elvis' age played a role in his death? That's not likely, Dr. Hille said.
"If it was an age thing, the state vet should have found it. And he didn't."
Baffled by Elvis' death, Dr. Hille has taken precautionary measures with other dogs she knows are eating Nutro food — specifically, members of K-9 Unit for the city of North Charleston, South Carolina.
Her husband is a handler for the dogs on that unit.
"I ran blood tests on all seven dogs in the K-9 unit," Dr. Hille said. "Three of the seven showed signs that they needed to get on better food. We have taken all the dogs off Nutro and put them on another food. "I ran those tests because of Elvis' case."
Elvis' owner applauds Dr. Hille's efforts to save her family's beloved German Shepherd. And she's just as committed to finding out what caused his sudden death.
"I don't want this to happen to someone else again," says Tracy H. of. North Charleston. "I am so distraught after having to watch my three kids see our wonderful dog die my 13-year-old son gave him CPR to try and keep him alive"
Tracy has searched for a lab — or state or federal agency — to test Elvis' food. But she's hit several roadblocks.
"I can't find anyone to test it. The Department of Agriculture (in S.C.) no longer does testing for toxicology. I called the FDA, but I got a recording. I did leave a message three times, but I never got a return call."
She's not giving up, though.
"It may cost me a great deal of money to pay for testing, but I will make sure that no one ever has to go through what my family has gone through. My sweet, sweet German Shepherd is gone forever and nothing will ever bring him back. But I will make sure that Nutro never does this to a dog again."
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Nutro about these concerns and Dr. Hansen's findings.
A company spokeswoman said all Nutro products undergo rigorous testing — beginning with the raw ingredients and ending with the finished products. And she said consumers should not worry about feeding their pets Nutro's foods.
"Nutro products are safe and conform to the standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)," Debra Fair, public relations manager for Mars Petcare, USA, said in a written statement. Mars acquired Nutro in May, 2007. "We are committed to working with these agencies and all stakeholders who share our goal of ensuring the safety of pet food products."
What about the concerns raised by Dr. Hille regarding Elvis' death?
Fair said it would be "irresponsible for us to speculate about the cause of the pet's illness" based on the limited information the company received from ConsumerAffairs.com.
"We encourage the attending veterinarian to contact us so that we can carefully review the details of the case," she said.
Fair also encouraged all consumers with concerns about Nutro to contact the company.
"While consumer concerns about Nutro product quality are rare, we take every complaint seriously. When we learn of an issue, we work with consumers to obtain information and request that samples of any product in question be submitted for testing at an independent facility."
She added: "An in-depth review is performed to determine if an issue does exist. All tested samples of product to date have been shown to be safe and conform to FDA, USDA and AAFCO standards."
She did not, however, state what toxins the company tested for or provide copies of any lab results.
Fair said that many consumers who have contacted ConsumerAffairs.com about Nutro have not shared their concerns with the company.
"A comprehensive review of our call center database shows that the vast majority of individuals posting on your site have not contacted Nutro or provided samples for testing."
Fair also said her company has made repeated efforts to contact all the consumers mentioned in a June 23 ConsumerAffairs.com story about the mysterious deaths of six dogs that had eaten Nutro. The story also focused on the sudden illnesses that pets nationwide and in Italy had experienced after eating the company's food.
"We've either spoken with or left multiple messages for all of the consumers cited in the June 23 posting," Fair said. "There is nothing that indicates that these pet health issues were caused by Nutro pet foods."
But pet owner Sharon A. of Cheektowaga, New York — who was included in our June 23 story — said no one from Nutro has contacted her.
"I've not heard from anyone at Nutro," she told us. Some of the other consumers in our June 23 story had already contacted Nutro.
But others would be hard for Nutro to find because we only identify consumers by their first names and last initials when their complaints are published. Nutro has never contacted ConsumerAffairs.com about those pet owners or asked how they could reach them, although a company spokesman said the information would be "immediately" provided.
"Whenever health and safety are involved, we are happy to immediately share consumer contact information with responsible company researchers, provided the companies agree that they will not take legal action against consumers making comments they object to," said ConsumerAffairs.com President James R. Hood. "No one from Nutro has ever bothered to contact us."
Meanwhile, Fair said her company concurred with Dr. Hansen's findings — and his suggestions to worried pet owners.
"We agree with his recommendation that it is important that consumers with concerns contact Nutro and their veterinarian."
Fair also addressed another issue we've raised before — the shortage of some Nutro products.
"The temporary availability issues that Nutro has experienced with certain products are operational in nature, not quality-related. Shortages of Nutro(tm) Natural Choice Lamb Meal and Rice products at some retail locations are due to the high demand for our products at a time of global shortages in lamb meal We have already secured additional, high-quality supply sources of most raw materials, and are currently working with suppliers in New Zealand and in the U.S. to establish an additional supply of lamb meal."
Some online bloggers have claimed that Nutro may recall some of its food. Fair denied that.
"We have no plans to recall Nutro products," she said.
What about the recent story about lay-offs by the company?
Fair declined to elaborate, stating: "As for the news item you shared regarding our locations in the City of Industry, we have no additional detail to add."
Fair said consumers or veterinarians with concerns or questions about Nutro can contact the company's Consumer Services Department at 1-800-833-5330.
Pet owners' experience
But grieving pet owners like Tracy say that doesn't do any good.
"I called Nutro and they said they have not had complaints of this nature and nor do they have any recalls on the dry food."
Worried pet owners can also contact their local FDA office to report their concerns about Nutro.
They can also call the ASPCA's Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435.
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