http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/09/nyreg ... l?emc=eta1
After Recall of Food, Veterinarians at Cornell University Rush to Save Poisoned Dogs
By MICHELLE YORK
Published: January 9, 2006
ITHACA, N.Y., Jan. 7 - On Friday morning, when their 4-year-old golden retriever, Minnie, was near death, Robert and Janice Lugo called in sick to their jobs, carried Minnie to their car and drove her to a top animal hospital four hours away.
Robert and Janice Lugo of Catskill, N.Y., comforted their dog on Saturday at Cornell's veterinary hospital.
They were in such a rush that Mr. Lugo left his winter coat back at their home in Catskill, N.Y. But he took his credit cards, which he figured he would need to pay for what could be thousands of dollars in veterinary bills.
It is the Lugos' last-ditch effort to save Minnie from liver disease brought on, veterinarians said, by pet food contaminated with a stealthy toxin. "She trusted us, and we fed her poison," Mrs. Lugo said, crying.
On Dec. 20, Diamond Pet Food, a Missouri company that sells its products internationally, voluntarily recalled 800,000 bags of pet food under several labels after an investigation. Based on lab tests, company officials believe that 1 to 3 percent of those bags contain dangerous amounts of aflatoxin, a poisonous byproduct of a fungus that grows on corn and other crops. When ingested in high amounts, aflatoxin causes potentially fatal liver disease. The recall included both cat and dog food, though dogs seem to be particularly susceptible.
"I'm hoping and praying that we got those bags back," said Mark Brinkmann, the company's chief operating officer.
But veterinarians at Cornell University Hospital for Animals, which has become a Northeast hub for dogs believed to be poisoned by the food, including Minnie, are worried. In the three weeks since the recall, veterinarians at the hospital in Ithaca have increased their estimate of dog fatalities so far to 100 nationwide from a handful.
Some pet owners may not have heard of the recall because it was announced just before the holidays. And aflatoxin poisoning does not always take effect quickly and can be mistaken for less serious illnesses, so they have adapted a human protein test to quickly detect the toxin. Veterinarians fear the number of fatalities could grow to several hundred in the coming months.
"I've never in my life seen anything like this," said Dr. Sharon Center, a professor of veterinary medicine at Cornell.
The chain of events that led to the poisoning began with poor weather. A drought in the South left cornfields vulnerable to Aspergillus flavus, a colorless, odorless fungus that spawns aflatoxin. The contaminated corn came from one of Diamond's main suppliers in Hilton Head, S.C., Mr. Brinkmann said. According to Mr. Brinkmann, Diamond routinely tests for aflatoxin, and an average of one truckload of corn has been rejected nearly every week because it tested positive for aflatoxin.
But the industry's testing methods are not foolproof, experts said. The fungus does not grow uniformly throughout the crop, so it may exist in some parts of the truckload of corn and not others.
On Oct. 11, a contaminated truckload slipped through, Mr. Brinkmann said. The pet food was processed at a company plant in Gaston, S.C., and sent to a distributor in Buffalo. From there, the contaminated food was put on store shelves east of Ohio.
Nearly two months later, several young Labradors at Kresland Kennel, near Rochester, began showing signs of liver failure, which include fatigue, vomiting and internal bleeding. Within about a week, three had died. "I had no idea why," said Susan Patrick, a breeder for 35 years.
Ms. Patrick's veterinarian, Dr. Stuart Gluckman, suggested post-mortem testing by pathologists at Cornell. In the meantime, an associate at his practice, Dr. Sara Sanders, was investigating the illness of two golden retrievers, one of whom later died. The veterinarians realized that both groups of dogs were being fed Diamond products. A receptionist at the practice overheard and was concerned because she was also using that brand, though her dog seemed healthy.
They alerted the state veterinary diagnostic center at Cornell, which tested the food and found aflatoxin. About two weeks later, the receptionist's dog died. Ms. Patrick has lost 7 of her 25 dogs and all of the others are still sick.
"They were dying in my lap," she said.
Once the problem was realized, Cornell experts prepared for the onslaught of cases. Many cut short holiday plans and are still working long shifts trying to figure out how to stave off death in the dogs.
There is no antidote. If a human contracted aflatoxin poisoning, which sometimes occurs in Third World countries, that person would need a liver transplant. Dr. Center is giving the dogs drugs to sustain them until their livers can regain some function.
Still, the fatality rate at Cornell is about 70 percent. The dogs that survive could face lifelong liver complications and a greatly increased risk of liver cancer.
Dr. Center is fielding calls from concerned veterinarians from the East Coast, and she fears that many other pets have died at their local animal hospital or at home without the disease's being diagnosed. The hardest calls, she said, are from older pet owners, who have lost their main companion. "They're anguished," she said.
In some cases, it is the owners, not the medicine, who bring comfort to the dogs. Jane-Marie Law crawled into the large cage that held her standard poodle, Tavi, to comfort her during her more difficult moments. After three weeks and nearly $7,500 in bills, Tavi is recovering. Now Ms. Law is helping the Lugo family. After meeting them on Friday at Cornell, Ms. Law took in Robert and Janice Lugo.
Diamond, which has never had a similar problem, is also trying to cope, Mr. Brinkmann said. After the company confirmed the contamination, it set up a call center and hired 12 veterinarians to answer questions. About 1,000 people a day call in. "They're getting hammered," said Dr. Stan Casteel, a veterinary professor who is working at the call center.
Diamond has also created an additional level of testing for aflatoxin and it will reimburse people for their veterinary bills and the cost of their lost animal in confirmed cases, Mr. Brinkmann said. "If we do the right thing, we can recover," he said.
On Saturday, Minnie lay in her cage, awake but motionless except for a tail wag when she saw her owners. "Once in a while, she'll just look at us like the old Minnie," Mr. Lugo said. "We just want her back."