June 30, 2008 -- Is the country's largest pet store chain to blame for the death of a 63-year old father and Vietnam War veteran from Texas? His family thinks so.
They believe a diseased exotic bird bought at a Corpus Christi PetSmart is responsible for the death of Joe De La Garza. And now the family is suing PetSmart for not protecting the consumer against a rare disease called psittacosis, or "parrot fever."
Amanda De La Garza was one of 11 million Americans who own pet birds. On Sept. 30, 2006, she could not resist a small $85 cockatiel.
"I noticed a little bird, which I later named Peachy," says Amanda, who lived with her 63-year-old father at the time. Sixteen days after bringing Peachy into her home, her father died, and Amanda slipped into a coma.
"When the doctors were alerted that I had birds, I had different antibiotics and I began to respond."
Amanda she says was shocked to learn she had contracted a bacterial infection, called psittacosis, from her pet cockatiel.
"Psittacosis is a relatively rare disease in humans," said Dr. James Imperato at the CUNY Medical Center. "There are only about a dozen to 25 cases reported a year."
The death certificate for her father, Joe De La Garza, stated the cause of death as pneumonia, but Amanda suspected her bird was the real cause, and she had his body exhumed last year.
"If he died from this, I had to be sure," she said.
An autopsy was performed and tissue samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Amanda's attorney, Ron Franklin, says, "what the CDC determined was that Mr. De La Garza had psittacosis. Through genetic blood tests -- and the autopsy with those findings -- it was able to determine the primary cause of death."
And because of these findings, the family is now suing PetSmart, where the bird was purchased.
In a written statement PetSmart says it has great sympathy for the De La Garza family's loss but adds, "We stand behind our pets. We believe these allegations are unfounded, and we intend to vigorously defend against them."
PetSmart produced a contract signed by Amanda that released the company from any liability resulting from exposure to the pets she purchased. The company says all cockatiels receive a 14-day course of antibiotics and then a seven-day isolation period to protect people against psittacosis.
Doctors say most people recover from exposure to the disease. "The fatality rate is very minimal in the U.S. because it can be treated very efficiently," says Imperato.
Unfortunately, that was certainly not the case with Amanda's father, and she describes her pain. "I think about this every day. My father is gone, my birds are gone, but I want the public to know about this so it doesn't happen to them."
She says she will never have a pet bird in her home again.
Psittacosis is rare, but animals carry other illnesses into our homes. How can you protect yourself against diseases transmitted through pets?
Marty Becker, a veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital and syndicated columnist of "Pet Connection," has a few quick tips that may help us to avoid illnesses transmitted through pets.
Wash hands after playing with a pet
Keep your yard clean
Remember that the young and elderly are most likely to be sickened
Take pet to vet twice a year
Use parasite control products