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Contaminated pet food sickens, kills dogs

A deadly toxin that contaminated large batches of Diamond pet food is believed to have sickened hundreds of dogs up and down the East Coast since mid-December, including at least six in the Buffalo area.

"We have seen multiple cases in the Buffalo area," said Dr. Karen Fischer, a veterinarian at Five Corners Animal Hospital in Orchard Park, whose office has been inundated by calls from worried pet owners. "I know of at least six cases. There certainly could be more dogs out there. . . . One of my friends' dogs died from it."

Dr. Louis Budik of the Transit Valley Animal Hospital in Clarence said he is treating a dog for aflatoxin, a poison produced by mold that grows on corn found in contaminated batches of the dog food.

"He was lethargic, not eating, [had] increased thirst and was vomiting," Budik said of the sickened pooch, which, he added, has shown some signs of improvement since beginning treatment.

The symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning include loss of appetite and lethargy; yellowing of eyes, gums and belly; severe, persistent vomiting; and bloody diarrhea. The symptoms can come on suddenly or can progress slowly, depending on how much of the toxin is consumed.

The contamination was initially detected Dec. 16 by two veterinarians in the Rochester area after a local dog breeder discovered several of her Labrador retrievers were suddenly stricken by liver ailments.

Dr. Stuart Gluckman of the Mendon Village Animal Hospital wondered whether there was a problem with their food. "He said to find out what they're eating," recounted his partner, Dr. Sara Sanders, who said she quickly realized that all of the ailing animals had been eating Diamond food.

Veterinary experts at Cornell University Hospital for Animals began tests and spotted toxin. About the same time, the pet food company began issuing warnings that some of its pet food had been contaminated.

Five of the breeder's dogs died and the Mendon vets know of at least one more area dog that died.

Hundreds of dogs in 22 states are believed to have been affected, but no cases involving cats have been reported so far.

Diamond Pet Food, based in Jefferson City, Mo., issued a voluntary recall last week of its pet foods made in its Gaston, S.C., plant with "best by" dates between March 1, 2007, and June 10, 2007, Mark Brinkmann, chief operations officer of Diamond Pet Food told The Buffalo News.

"That's somewhere around 800,000 units of product," said Brinkmann, adding that its latest tests have shown that the June-date batches were toxin-free.

The company has posted information about aflatoxin on its Web site at www.diamondpet.com and has set up a customer information center staffed by veterinarians familiar with treating aflatoxin. The hotline number is (866) 214-6945.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets put out its own warning about the tainted pet food on Dec. 21 and is conducting tests on Diamond's pet foods made in the months before and after the dates issued in the company recall to make sure the problem isn't more widespread.

Diamond Pet Food officials and veterinarians alike are recommending that dog owners whose pets ate food that's now being recalled have blood work done on the animals as soon as possible and follow up with a second set of blood tests in seven to 10 days. Veterinarians also are recommending dog owners put their animals on liver protectant medications.

On Wednesday, Diamond officials said they were considering reimbursing pet owners for their vet bills in confirmed cases.

"Our goal is to be fair and consistent and do the right thing," Brinkmann said.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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