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January 8, 2006
Tainted food suspected in dog's death
Northampton family's beloved pet became gravely ill. They were shocked to learn they were feeding him one of 19 brands in a recall for possible toxin.
By Daryl Nerl
Of The Morning Call
Scooby, a sheltie and terrier mix, still had the disposition of a puppy at 6 years old. He loved walks and car rides and followed his owner, Linda Homishak, everywhere around her Northampton home.
So when he became listless and unusually picky at his dog food bowl around Christmas, Linda and her husband, Mike, became concerned about their dog's health.
On Dec. 27, they took Scooby for a veterinary checkup and discovered horrifying news: The brand of food they had been giving their dog may have been contaminated with a deadly toxin that can destroy a dog's liver.
Over the next four days, the distraught family consulted with three local veterinarians, had Scooby's blood tested, administered medicines and ultimately drove the dog to Ithaca, N.Y., to the world-renowned Cornell University Hospital for Animals in hope of saving their beloved pet.
But Scooby's health continued to deteriorate. On Monday, he was euthanized in upstate New York.
Scooby is one of three dog deaths in Pennsylvania — and at least two dozen nationwide — in which there is a suspected relation to aflatoxin poisoning discovered in food produced by Diamond Pet Foods of Missouri, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Aflatoxin is a naturally occurring toxic chemical byproduct from the growth of the fungus Aspergillus flavus, which can grow on corn under the right environmental conditions. The substance can cause cancer, suppress immune functions and cause liver damage.
On Dec. 20, Diamond issued a recall of 19 food brands processed between Sept. 1 and Dec. 10 at its plant in South Carolina, where it is believed the tainted food was produced. It includes dog and cat foods with the labels Diamond, Country Value and Professional.
Food produced at the South Carolina plant is distributed to 22 other states, including Pennsylvania. Though cat foods were included in the recall, there have not been any known cases involving felines, said John Breitsman, chief of the division of agronomic and regional services for the state agriculture department, which regulates the production and sale of pet foods in Pennsylvania.
Several Lehigh Valley pet stores sold Diamond foods, including the chains Pet Supplies Plus and SuperPetz. Managers at Pet Supplies Plus on Union Boulevard in Allentown and the SuperPetz store on Easton Avenue in Bethlehem Townshp said they had removed the brand from their shelves. Both managers expressed doubts about carrying Diamond Pet Foods again, though they said it was not their decision.
But at Phillips Pet Outlet in East Allen Township, store manager Ed Schroeder said he had removed tainted food and had his shelves restocked by the same manufacturer.
''It's normally a good quality food,'' Schroeder said. ''They reacted very quickly to the problem as far as I'm concerned.''
'I fed him poison'
Until Scooby became ill, the Homishaks had a similar, positive impression of Diamond Pet Foods. It is the only brand they ever fed Scooby, starting with the puppy formula when they first got him.
They picked the brand, Linda Homishak said, partially because it was only available at pet supply stores. In the days that followed Scooby's death, an awful thought occurred to her: ''Oh my God. He trusted me, and I fed him poison.''
The first clues about Scooby's illness emerged in the week leading up to Christmas. He was unusually sluggish and he wouldn't eat his food. She wondered if Scooby was jealous of the new kitten the family had brought into the house.
Mike Homishak said they tried to get Scooby to eat by slipping some steak, ground beef or chicken into his dog food bowl. Scooby ate the treats, but left his dry food behind.
As the behavior persisted over the long Christmas weekend, the Homishaks decided they would take Scooby in for a checkup on Dec. 27. That is when their regular veterinarian informed them of the Diamond recall. Blood tests revealed that Scooby's liver enzymes were high, an indication that damage had been done.
The veterinarian tried to flush out the dog's system with intravenous fluids and prescribed medications. But on Dec. 28, Scooby continued to refuse to eat, though the family tried to coax him with meat and rice.
A friend referred the Homishaks to another veterinarian in Easton, who on Dec. 29 suggested more drugs and round-the-clock intravenous fluids. Because both of the Homishaks are nurses, they were able to preside over the routine at home.