"The cat is gone; I can't prove it one way or another, but my cat was absolutely healthy at the beginning of February," says Valentine. "There was just nothing wrong with him."
This story echoes that of Mao, Mary Massie's cat of nine and a half years. Massie adopted Mao as a kitten in Ashville, N.C., and the pet followed its now-32-year-old owner on moves to Athens, Ga., San Bernardino, Calif., and finally to Charlotte, N.C., where Massie is working toward earning a fine arts degree in painting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Massie says that she had fed Mao, a grayish-white cat with bushy fur and a raccoonlike tail, Iams Select Bites for the past two years. On February 24, the cat's energy level was low and he refused food, although he drank water nonstop. Three days later, Massie took Mao to the vet, who diagnosed the cat with kidney failure. The next day, Massie had Mao euthanized.
According to Richard Goldstein, a kidney specialist at Cornell University's Animal Health Diagnostic Center, all of the animals affected by the recall showed similar signs of the poisoning. "There's a specific pathologic phenomenon that we're seeing, which is acute tubular necrosis—acute damage to the tubules to the kidney associated with or in conjunction with these pretty characteristic [round] crystals that we're seeing in the animals' kidneys and urine," he says. He adds that this causes blood creatinine levels to spike anywhere from two to 10 times higher than normal.
Goldstein says that the center received samples of both food products and animal remains from Menu Foods a day or two before the recall. Using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (a process that separates complex mixtures and analyzes ingredients by measuring a weight-to-charge ratio), researchers compared the constituent chemicals in the food to standards for common molds, heavy metals and ethylene glycol (or antifreeze, which Goldstein says is the number one cause of kidney failure). All test results were negative.
Cornell's initial tests were inconclusive, so the university sent samples to the NYDASM food safety lab, which has an expanded set of contaminants to compare with the food. This lab detected aminopterin after switching to a UV-light detector to help them visualize the poison; it was initially difficult to pinpoint because of the food's gummy consistency, which makes it hard to load into their machines and then to isolate out components. Goldstein says that Cornell is now trying to replicate NYDASM's results in an attempt to prove definitively that aminopterin is the culprit. "In order to prove it, we'd [also] have to find the compound in the tissue of cats that have died or the urine of cats that have gotten sick," he says.
If we can reconfirm "what was found in Albany," he continues, "[we can] start looking at being able to provide a [screening] test for the pet owners and veterinarians" to determine whether an animal has been poisoned.
Carly Bloom, a veterinarian in Grafton, Mass., says that since the recall, there has been a dramatic jump in the number of worried owners bringing in pets—mostly cats—for blood work, specifically to check their kidney function. Any animals that present symptoms of kidney disease—vomiting, lethargy, anorexia, increased urination and, in some cases, unquenchable thirst—are given 48 hours of intravenous fluids, such as saline solution or lactated ringers, to correct dehydration, supply electrolytes and flush out crystals lodged in the kidney's tubules. "As far as I can see, these cats have been doing pretty well," says Bloom. "I had a case last week that was eating recalled food, came in with elevated kidney enzymes, was on intravenous fluids for two days and then had normal kidney values. I rechecked him a week later, and he is still fine."
Jim Valentine and Mary Massie have both contacted local FDA investigators about their deceased pets, and Massie feels that, at the least, Menu Foods should be required to reimburse her for her vet bills, which totaled nearly $400. "If our product is the cause of pet sickness or death, Menu Foods will take responsibility," says company spokesperson Tuite, who estimates the total cost of the recall to be about $25 million to $35 million in lost revenues. Menu Foods is asking pet owners to keep copies of veterinary records and medical bills as well as receipts for their pet food purchases.