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."
He adds that he normally recommends dry food for pets because of dental health benefits -- the crunching and chewing strengthen and cleans pets' teeth.
Becker said that the advertising of certain brands of pet food also create a difficult choice for owners who want to give their pets the best but do not have all the information at hand to make an educated choice.
"With food being so critically important, and with so many tantalizing ads, it is impossible for a pet owner to be able to make an intelligent choice," he said.
But could the nature of the wet foods be what is sickening these pets so profoundly? Thompson said no.
"For now, however, canned food is not something that will generally make pets sick," he said.
As a case in point, Thompson said that there have been instances in the past where dry food has made pets sick. In late 2005, the presence of a toxin in dry food distributed by the Diamond Pet Food Co. occurred due to a mold that contaminated the production process.
And Becker said such a toxin or contaminant is a likely culprit in this round of recalls as well.
"I think it's going to end up being some kind of toxin, but that is purely speculative," Becker said. "I think we'll find something in the next couple of days. I think we'll find something very quickly."
Becker said that despite the recall, most of the foods on the shelf, regardless of price, are typically safe for pets' consumption.
"With the sheer number of pets being fed commercial pet food, this is a very small problem so far," he said.
He adds that the most important step that an owner can take to ensure that his or her pet is receiving the proper food is to consult the opinion of a veterinarian, because different pets have different nutritional needs.
And as for the situation at hand, Becker said the fact that the voluntary recall was issued by the company so quickly likely saved the lives of many pets whose owners regularly bought the recalled brands.
Plus, there are steps that owners can take at home to ensure that their pets remain as healthy as possible, even if they have eaten the food.
"This is not just about taking the product off the shelves at stores," Becker said. "It's about taking them out of the cupboard at home."
Pet owners can find a complete list of the recalled products along with product codes, descriptions and production dates was available from the Menu Foods Web site, http://www.menufoods.com/recall.
If owners believe that their pet has been eating the food, Becker said that they should bring their pets into the vet's office immediately.
Cats, Becker said, can lose 80 percent of kidney function before showing evidence of a problem. But once the animal reaches this tipping point, the problem becomes apparent. By this time, treatment may come too late.
"If their pet ate this food, or if the owner even thinks it did, we can give that cat or dog massive amounts of fluids to flush this out," he said.
Thompson adds that if a pet shows any alarming symptoms, such as vomiting and loss of appetite, owners should consult their vets for appropriate blood work.
But the warnings came too late for Betsy Murner of Pennsylvania, whose dog died after eating the suspect food.
"He's not there anymore, wagging his tail greeting you," Murner said. "It's just not the same."