Michael Brice-Saddler, The Washington PostPublished
Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images/Cavan Images RF
Dog food company recalled its products, but grieving pet owners say it's too late
When Laura Freeman's 4-year-old dog, Mocha, was diagnosed with gastroenteritis in late October, antibiotics and other medication didn't help.
X-rays and blood tests indicated that the dog was in good health, but Mocha wasn't eating. About a week later, in hope of increasing Mocha's appetite, a veterinarian recommended Hill's Pet Nutrition "Prescription Diet i/d dog food," formulated to help dogs with digestive issues.
"This is gentle on their stomach, and dogs normally like the taste of it," Freeman recalled the veterinarian saying. Within days, the Texas woman said Mocha's condition rapidly deteriorated without explanation. The dog became lethargic, vomited bile, drooled incessantly and had diarrhea. An overnight stay at the vet turned into a trip to an animal hospital for more testing as doctors tried to determine what was wrong.
On Nov. 9, Freeman got a 12:45 a.m. call from the animal hospital - Mocha had suffered a fatal heart attack, and the vet couldn't provide an explanation for her death. Freeman learned later that the canned dog food prescribed by the veterinarian was included in a voluntary recall by its manufacturer because of excessive levels of vitamin D.
"A lot of the symptoms my dog had were symptoms of vitamin D overdose," Freeman said. "(The food is) supposed to be good for you dog. It was expensive, but I was willing to pay it because I wanted my dog to get better."
Now, Freeman said she's seeking an apology and compensation for more than $3,000 in medical bills accrued after her dog began the new diet, joining others who've indicated that their dogs became sick or died in recent weeks after eating the food included in the recall by Hill's Pet Nutrition, some of which is meant for dogs with health problems. The company said elevated levels of vitamin D may cause vomiting, loss of appetite, excessive drooling and weight loss, among other symptoms.
A company statement contains a guide identifying the brands and the specific lot and date codes on potentially affected products. "In the United States, the affected canned dog foods were distributed through retail pet stores and veterinary clinics nationwide," the statement said. "No dry foods, cat foods, or treats are affected."
Notices of the recall posted to the Hill's Pet Nutrition Facebook and Twitter pages last week were overwhelmed with replies from distressed pet owners, many of whom claimed their dogs had become extremely sick or died after consuming the food. Some said their vets had prescribed it to them. Some said they'd paid thousands in medical bills as a result of the accompanying illness.
"Unexplained acute kidney failure and high levels of vitamin D, vomiting, tremors, eventually refusing to eat," Facebook user Jennifer Ann posted to the page, with a photo of her dog. "Been feeding Hill's I/D canned food. Staley passed away 12.16.18 after almost $10,000 in vet bills trying to save her life. Hills, sorry you're paying for this."
Caitlin Gibson, a reporter at The Washington Post, wrote in a tweet that her dog also died after eating affected prescription food from Hill's. Her dog also showed symptoms of vitamin D poisoning.
Hill's Pet Nutrition said it had "identified and isolated" the issue, which was apparently caused by a supplier error. Hill's said an investigation confirmed the elevated vitamin D levels, which the company became aware of through a complaint about a sick dog in the United States. The company says it will require the supplier to do additional quality testing before releasing ingredients.
Hill's did not respond to The Washington Post's email or phone calls requesting further comment Monday. The company has replied to individual Facebook and Twitter posts by referring people to their consumer affairs hotline, but some pet owners on social media said their calls were not being returned.
"We are working hard to notify all of our clients as quickly as possible," the company wrote in one reply. "We care about all pets and are working diligently to communicate with everyone."
Freeman remembered her dog Monday as sweet, active and loyal.
"I hope anybody whose dog was affected by this would be at least reimbursed for their vet bills," Freeman said. "This company is supposed to be special, elite dog food - they weren't paying attention to what is actually going into their food."
Davina Catbagan, associate veterinarian at Cherrydale Veterinary Clinic in Arlington, Virginia, said in an interview that too much vitamin D can upset the calcium balance in the canine's body, possibly resulting in illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal upset to kidney damage.
"In more severe cases, especially with the kidneys, it becomes more concerning," Catbagan said.