Saturday, October 26, 2013

Alarming Headlines and a Story Behind the Headlines

The headlines look achingly familiar:



The story is this: Pet jerky treats, coming mostly from China, have sickened 3,600 dogs and cats in recent years. A documented 580 dogs and 10 cats have died as a result of eating these treats which can cause kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and a rare kidney disorder, according to the Food and Drug Administration.  The agency is now appealing to pet owners and veterinarians to send them information on animals who may have become sick after eating the treats. A pet may have  suffered from decreased appetite, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea after ingesting the jerky treats sold under a number of brands as jerky tenders or strips made of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes or dried fruit. So far, FDA officials have not been able to identify the ingredient causing sickness and death in too many beloved pets.                  

Before you turn the newspaper page, skimming the contents, stop and consider the stories behind those statistics. What if the unimaginable happened to your beloved dog or cat?

I remember when the first headlines appeared heralding another pet food alarm in 2007. During that scare, the ingredient was identified: in a wheat/protein filler, manufactured in China and used in dozens of U.S. manufactured pet food brands, the plastic substance melamine was substituted for higher-cost natural ingredients. Thousands of dogs and cats were affected -- with many thousands ill and hundreds dying. The FDA set up a section of their website listing popular pet food brands that had been found to have this lethal melamine ingredient. Alarmed, I went online to the site and checked the pet food brands recalled. I breathed a sigh of relief. The brands we were feeding our nearly 9-year-old feline duo did not appear on the site. Timmy and Gus were safe.

Thank goodness! These two brothers, adopted from our vet after she had spent a month nursing the 3-week-old abandoned kittens to good health, came as a mandatory pair. They were so bonded, she said. They should not be split up. So we took them both, loving and enjoying them so much, we could hardly wait to get home from work each night.

Timmy (l) and Gus (r) their first night home

Loving brothers sleeping curled up together

These two brothers were quite different -- different personalties, liking different types of food -- and yet they were warmly bonded with us and with each other. Gus is a love, a sweet, cuddly cat. Timmy, a bit more complicated, still loved to cuddle and talk incessently and ride on Bob's shoulder. He was so outgoing and affectionate that he worked as an occasional therapy animal in my private psychotherapy practice. Timmy and Gus curled up together to sleep each night. We became a loving family of four.

                                                Timmy with his buddy Bob

                                                Timmy and Gus as adults

Still I worried.

I mentioned my concern about tainted pet food and my daily website checks to an acquaintance who had a dog. "Oh, yeah," she said. "My husband did a web search and the serial numbers of the recalled food matched our dog food batch. But we bought a whole case of it. She has eaten three cans and hasn't died yet, so I guess we'll give her the rest and hope for the best. That stuff is expensive. We can't just throw it out." (Despite her thoughtlessness, her dog survived.)

I shuddered at her words and vowed to keep checking the mounting list of contaminated pet food online.

I remember lying on the bed that Mother's Day -- not my favorite day of the year -- snuggling with Timmy and Gus and thinking how much I loved them and how much I wanted to keep them safe. Timmy looked at me thoughtfully, directly, as he often did. "Please live for a long, long time," I said, feeling suddenly tearful. "I can't imagine life without you two."

That Tuesday, Bob and I returned home from work to the sounds of retching. Timmy had thrown up in three places, but seemed to perk up as the evening went on. Gus was fine. I checked the website again. The foods we gave Timmy and the food we gave Gus were not on the list. A virus, we guessed. We'd keep an eye on him and call the vet if he vomited again.

Wednesday we got home to find that Timmy had vomited in five different places throughout the house. As he began to vomit again, the retching came between piercing screams. We rushed to embrace him and tried to find help. His vet's office was closed for the night. We took him to an emergency services vet who found nothing of note wrong with him except that he was a little dehydrated. She suggested giving him plenty of water and taking him to his regular vet first thing in the morning. When we got home, I went online, checking both the government website (still no mention of Timmy's food) and vomiting as a symptom. Timmy lay on my lap, watchful and trusting. That night he insisted on sleeping with us, cuddling up for comfort, purring and rubbing his face against ours.

I met his vet as she arrived at her office at 7 Thursday morning. She said she would run some tests and that it might be a virus. Timmy had never been ill in his nearly nine years of life. She suggested that I leave him with her and pick him up that night.

Two hours later, she called me at my office at UCLA. "I can't believe it," she said, her voice choked. "He is in total kidney failure. Has he been in your garage? Could he have ingested anti-freeze?"

"No, he hasn't," I whispered, sitting down, shocked.

"He has a urinary blockage and I don't have the diagnostic equipment here to discover the cause," she said. "Could you come get him and take him to West Los Angeles Pet Hospital? I know an excellent doctor there and they have the equipment." The hospital was three blocks from my office but 35 miles from Timmy. I called Bob at his office in downtown L.A. and we raced for our cars, getting to the vet's at the same time. We bundled Timmy into his carrier and Bob drove frantically through heavy traffic to get to the hospital.  The hospital receptionist demanded $1400 in advance. The doctor smiled and cradled Timmy, remarking on how beautiful and well-behaved he was and said they would need to keep him overnight for tests.

Bad news came Friday morning: his kidney failure was complete, his blockage -- of mysterious origin -- was immobile. "We're going to try one more thing," the vet said. "But if that doesn't work, we will need to put him down."

Put him down! But he was fine a few days ago! But he was my therapy cat. But he was our love.

Worse news came promptly. There was nothing that could be done to save him. He was in horrific pain. Euthanasia would spare him further agony.

It was a nightmare. Timmy brightened when he saw us, ready to go home. The vet said he had been given the maximum amount of morphine to dull his excruciating pain. Timmy raised his chin for the vet to scratch it and cuddled with us. Then he saw the needle and began running around the room, dragging the catheter behind him. Twice he wrenched the needle out of the catheter with his teeth. He hissed at the vet. He looked at us imploringly.

"Timmy, my love, come sit on my lap," Bob said quietly. Timmy obeyed. The vet attached the needle. And then he was gone. And our hearts broke, the pain indelible, even more as we listened to Gus howl in the night, every night, for his brother, until, a month later, we adopted a kitten named Maggie for him to embrace.

Bereaved Gus clings to kitten Maggie

The necropsy reports were painful to read, but not a surprise: Timmy's kidneys were destroyed and his urinary system completely clogged and solidified with melamine crystals -- yes, the plastic material. Timmy was yet another victim of melamine poisoning.

                                    Last photo of Timmy a few weeks before death

Timmy's food appeared on the FDA list a week after his death.

There were class action suits. We joined them. The settlement would be limited to a percentage of the expenses of the last illness. No other compensation was possible because, well, pets are property according to the law. Timmy's last 24 hours had cost $4,000. We would have spent much more if there had been a hope of cure. Our final settlement amount was $1,643. It could have been
100 times that and it wouldn't have touched the magnitude of our loss.

Gus, now nearly 16, is still with us, though he seemed to age prematurely, perhaps as a result of ingesting a bit of the tainted food or perhaps as a result of losing the brother/littermate with whom he was so bonded.

Maggie, now six, looks after Gus with great care.

And I look in his eyes and wish he could live for a long, long time. But I don't say it. I just take his head in my hands, tell him how much he is loved and listen to him purr.

                                          Gus in 2013 with Maggie and Hammie

And so now there is another round of tainted food, another growing number of sick and dying pets.

I no longer give our cats treats or cat food with any fillers. I'm monitoring their health closely. And I'm hoping, somehow, this new problem ingredient will be identified and removed from pet foods before many more beloved pets die.

What else can I tell you?

Please read the headlines. Go to the FDA site to keep current and report any illnesses promptly. Throw out any jerky treats. Watch your pets closely and get them to the vet at the first sign of illness.

My only wish as I read these headlines is that you and the animals you love so much will be spared the anguish that is with us still.


  1. Thanks for the warning. So sorry about your little sweetie. I remember the first time it happened. Started feeding my cat chicken that I cooked. At vets when dog owner brought her dog in to be put down because of kidney failure due to the contaminated food. He couldn't be saved. Pets are not just pets, they are our children.

    1. Yes, I think home made meals for pets can be a good idea. I explored that via some cookbooks for pet food but ended up just reading labels carefully because I was working such long hours at the time. But it might be a worthy project for retirement! Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I hope the culprits pay dearly for such mistakes. So sorry nothing could be done to save Timmy.

    1. The man who made the decision to substitute melamine for wheat products was executed in 2007. He wasn't brought to justice because of the furor over pet food. Rather, he had also put melamine in baby formulas and was sentenced to death for causing the deaths of many babies in China. Even though he paid with his life, it doesn't bring back those babies, those beloved pets or our Timmy. We still miss him so much despite being blessed with his wonderful brother and three other delightful cats. Thanks so much for your comment and visit!

  3. Oh how terrible --what is happening now to pets and what happened to your Timmy... Makes me so sad... Why do we keep buying so much crap from CHINA???


    1. That's a good question, Betsy! I wouldn't wish what we went through and, more to the point, what Timmy went through on anyone!

  4. Oh, my heart broke when I read this. I am so very sorry, and yet outraged that something like this can happen. We have a brand new baby Blue Heeler, and I'm going to check all of his food and treats right now. I hate that this happened~

  5. This is outrageous! I'm so angry that greed drives ingredient substitution that can harm our beloved pets.

    Congratulations on your new puppy! May he live a long and healthy life!

  6. Your story touches my heart. I had a yellow labrador retriever, Cheyenne, who was put down last autumn. I wish that all pet owners were as responsible and caring as you are.

  7. I'm so sorry that you've lost Cheyenne. They really do become part of the family, don't they? And one never forgets.

  8. Oh, Kathy, this is such a sad story. You take such loving care and responsibility and did everything to protect him, but were still failed by the powers that be. Your pets are very fortunate to have you -- and from the photographs look as they know that, too...

  9. Oh, dear Kathy, my heart breaks as I read this, because I know how much you loved Timmy (and Gus and all of them). I can't begin to tell you how much this touches my heart and as one with her own cat loss I know that pain. All the more with the suddenness and senselessness of the loss.

    This is indeed outrageous. As Shelly said, I will be checking the food. Lizzie doesn't get treats, and I don't think her food is on the list -- but thank you for the reminder. It must be a terribly one to hear about.

    Your sweet oranges. Remembering Timmy and thinking good thoughts for Gus and all your purrers.

    1. Thanks so much Jeanie! I love the phrase "your sweet oranges"! Yes, what made Timmy's death particularly painful was the senselessness as well as the suddenness. I see his brother Gus still enjoying life, for which I am so grateful, but also am grieved that Timmy was cheated out of all those good years. It sure doesn't hurt to be watchful: watch the news stories on this in print and online and watch your beloved animals for any early signs of illness.

  10. I'm so sorry for the loss of your Timmy, and for the terrible way it happened. Pets are so much more than pets for many of us, and their pain and suffering affects us greatly. You have given us a good reminder. I must go check to see if any of the affected foods or treats are sold in Canada.

    1. You're so right, Jenny! Our pets are family. That's why I'm hoping no one reading this will have an experience like ours. I want to reiterate that Timmy died as a result of the 2007 melamine-in-pet-food scandal.
      The current alert is due to an ingredient that is still a mystery and is, thus, confined to jerky treats.

  11. Dear Kathy, thank you for telling us about this alert and for reliving through this post the death of your beloved Timmy. As you know, I live with three cats. Would you please let me know what dry food you feed the three cats with whom you live. I think all the dry food I feed has fillers and so I'd appreciate your help. Peace.

  12. The only dry food our cats get is Hill's Prescription Diet Feline T/D, a formula for dental health, as one of our four is elderly and the other three are Siamese or Burmese mix and prone to gingivitis. At this point, melamine is no longer an issue in dry and canned pet foods. The lethal mystery ingredient this time around has only been linked to jerky treats made for cats and dogs. I would say that absolutely don't give your pet any form of jerky treat. Otherwise, just be alert to any further news items and also to any unusual symptoms.

    1. Dear Kathy, thanks for this response. I've never given the cats any jerky. So I think we'll be okay. Peace.

  13. OH my I am sitting here with tears flowing for your sweet Timmy. I am so sorry that you lost him through carelessness of a company. It scares me to death every time I read about something like this. My daughter sent it to me the other week and my first thoughts were Oh not again and then of all the families who have suffered once again.
    Just yesterday I told Tinkerbell she was going to have to live a long long time but I worry about her because she is overweight and I can't get her weight down even though since I had to adopt another cat she does get a lot more exercise now.
    This was such a sad post and I know it was hard for you to write it.
    Take care honey.
    Love ya

  14. Thanks for this post. We do have to pay attention. My sister's dog just ingested marijuana that he found on one of his walks with my brother-in-law on the downtown streets of San Diego. The poor dog was very, very sick. The vet says she is seeing this more and more. My sister called to say her cat was in re-hab, but she was seriously very worried about her poor puppy.

  15. OMG, I shall check Millie’s food instantly. I don’t even know what jerky treats are.

    When a pet dies - no matter how - it leaves a huge hole in the household. It takes ages to get over it. Some people might think that we have our priorites wrong, but if I do, so be it.

    I love my cats and dogs, they are family and I grieve for them when they leave me.

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