POLK COUNTY -- As the list of recalled pet foods and snacks looms large in their minds, pet "parents" cringe every time they feed Fido and Fluffy. Meanwhile, veterinarians field phone calls and run tests to waylay concerns about toxins in cat and dog food.
Menu Foods, headquartered in Ontario, Canada, has recalled from store shelves the foods it made in a Kansas plant for dozens of brand-name distributors. The recall was prompted by consumer complaints received by the manufacturer and by tasting trials conducted by the manufacturer.
The suspect products are mostly "cuts and gravy" style dog and cat food and "jerky" or "meat-stick" type treats.
Earlier this week, the Veterinarians Information Network, a web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated products. The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats. At least nine cat deaths were reported by Menu Foods itself after doing test trials.
It is difficult to get the latest numbers. The Oregon Veterinary Medicine Association on Monday put the figure at 35 pet deaths in Oregon alone.
As of Monday, it appeared that dry (kibble) types of pet food are safe with oie exception found in FDA tests: Hills Prescription Diet M/D Feline dry cat food.
At Ash Creek Animal Clinic in Independence, Dr. Laura Archer said the staff has seen a few suspicious cases but nothing that has been officially confirmed.
"First of all, to be real precise, none of them are confirmed cases. In the the two instances I reported, the owners had thrown away the food and they didn't have the old packages so there was nothing to test for the pesticide," she said.
"The animals are very sick, (but) they haven't been hospitalized and they are being treated at home. Both are older animals, and they could have fallen ill because of other causes. But, their illnesses are very suspicious," Archer concluded.
She said her staff is mostly fielding questions about what symptoms owners should be looking for and what can be done if a pet falls ill.
The symptoms of kidney disease include loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, sudden changes in water consumption, or changes in the frequency or amount of urination.
Kirsten Anderson of Independence is one of Archer's patients. Her 13-year-old cat, Zoey, died last week.
Anderson said Zoey was her companion and friend.
"I'm furious," Anderson said. "Zoey had never been sick a day in her life ... it never occurred to me that we could lose her this early. We really feel like we never had a clue that what we were doing could be harming her. It was the food.
"I feel guilt, and I'm sad ... I cry all the time now."
Anderson said that her family and employer have been very supportive. She said that even though she's a lawyer and she knows there are going to be lawsuits, she just wants to know if the company suspected of manufacturing tainted food could have done something to warn consumers sooner.
The issue of lawsuits has already begun to surface as pet food distributors brace for an onslaught.
"I feel rotten for this company because this is going to be a bloodbath," said Dt. Thomas Keck of Dallas Animal Clinic. "Trust me, there will be a class-action lawsuit, and most likely this manufacturer is going down and may take a couple of the food companies with it. People are mad."
If owners choose to go to court themselves, they may be disappointed. Unless they have quantifiable veterinary bills and a confirmed case of poisoning, payment for damages isn't likely.
Pets are still considered property in this country -- and not particularly valuable property at that. The truth is, pet owners would get more fiscal compensation if their couch had been destroyed. Pain and suffering over the loss of a pet has rarely held up in court.
Some experts wonder, however, if this case and its aftermath will change that. Possibly the horrible way that these pets have died could sway the court system.
Kate Ruiz's cat Chest is currently the only officially confirmed pet death in Polk County connected with the food recall.
There is no doubt in Ruiz's mind that Chester suffered. "I noticed when I got home that he hadn't eaten his morning food," she said. "He started drinking a lot of water, but he wouldn't eat anything. I called the vet and said I was bringing him in, and by the time I got him in he was drooling blood and peeing on himself, which he never did. He was always very clean. That was Monday (of last week). We had him euthanized Tuesday.
The next day, the pet food recall was announced.
Ruiz is angry and guilt-ridden. She said that the grieving process is made all the more difficult for her and her husband because they were the ones who unknowingly gave Chester the food that killed him.
"Menu Foods has promised to pay vet bills for the affected animals (over $300 in my case). But, that won't bring back my furry, funny friend. I am so sorry for anyone who has lost a pet. I know it hurts and especially when they trusted us to keep them safe and healthy and we failed," Ruiz wrote in a letter to the Itemizer-Observer.
Dr. Keck said he finds the whole thing very suspicious. Mostly because aminopterin, the rat poison that may be the cause of the pet deaths, isn't used in North America.
"I honestly wonder if someone didn't slip it in to kill pets on purpose or bring down Menu Foods. It's all really sad and it will be interesting to see what comes to light," Keck said.
The New York State Department of Agriculture reported the first cases of rodent poison in pet food two weeks ago. Since then nearly 100 cases of illness have been confirmed in Oregon. Even more pet illnesses go unconfirmed because there is no food left to test.
The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) is advising people to watch their pets closely and have them tested if they exhibit any signs of kidney failure.
"It is important for pet owners to be vigilant about this," said Dr. Jacqui Neilson, president of the OVMA. "Acute renal failure can be fatal. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential. It is imperative that pet owners check their pet foods against the list provided by Menu Foods."
That list can be found online at www.menufoods.com/recall. Or, pet owners can call 1-866-895-2708.
For more information and updates: www.oregonvma.org.