The death toll of pets that have reportedly died from eating contaminated food produced by Menu Foods of Canada has risen into the hundreds, a prominent veterinarian said.
Idaho veterinarian Marty Becker, who has been tracking the number of reported deaths through his Pet Connection Web site, said he has received 241 reports of pet death from the food so far.
He also said reports from almost 600 concerned pet owners suggest the official mortality numbers will end up even higher.
"I think it's going to be scary," Becker said.
The food, which was recalled late last week, is sold under nearly 100 brands, including some of the biggest names -- Iams, Purina, Eukanuba, Science Diet and others.
Thus far, the deadly contaminant in the food has not yet been identified. However, the pets who have been sickened and died show signs of kidney failure. The toxic food also appears to have more of an effect on cats than dogs.
Jeff Burnton's two dogs suddenly stopped eating a week ago. Only one survived.
"Last Sunday, she was a perfectly healthy normal 3-year-old Bernese mountain dog," Burnton said. "And as of Friday, she was on her last breath."
His dog died of kidney failure after eating some of the pet food.
Other pet owners experienced something similar with their cats and dogs. Beth and Mike Calhoun's dog Angus died in January, and Zoe, their cat, passed away a few weeks ago from kidney failure. Both ate the recalled pet food.
"It was pretty brutal. He just looked awful. He was crying and his eyes were glazed over and I thought this just isn't right," Mike Calhoun said about Angus. "And the same thing with Zoe, the cat. I looked at her when I came home one day and I said, 'she's just not right.'"
Becker said that since a voluntary recall was issued Friday for numerous popular brands of pet food, he and the veterinary experts in his office have been inundated with calls from concerned owners.
"Locally, at our vets' practices, there are so many people calling and coming in," he said. "At one time pets were animals. When the animal was sick, it was disposed of. Now, it's a kid.
"For these owners, anything that puts their kid at risk, they're going to panic."
Becker advised owners to watch their pets closely for symptoms that would suggest poisoning.
"You'll see lethargy, increased urination, increased consumption of water, loss of appetite," he said.
Monday, the Food and Drug Administration said it believes that the wheat gluten used in the pet foods may have somehow become contaminated with mold or another toxin. The ingredient was used in plants in Kansas City and New Jersey.
When the manufacturer tested the food from these plants on between 40 and 50 animals, 10 died.
Since all the foods involved are "top-shelf" brands, the episode may leave many owners wondering whether the expensive designer foods they are buying for their pets are actually the best choice.
The brands that have been recalled are "wet" foods -- those that include soft food and gravy.
Most pet owners who buy these foods do so with the intention of providing their pets with the very best in nutrition and safety.
However, veterinarian Gary Thompson said that the extra investment in wet food may be largely a gimmick.
"Canned food has no real advantage for pets over dry food," he said. "It's a purely cosmetic choice. People like it because it looks more like human food."