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The Food and Drug Administration isn't sure, but Rita Desollar of Pekin, Ill., feels she knows what killed Heidi, her 7-year-old German shepherd. She feels it was the chicken jerky strips she bought at her local Walgreen's.
Desollar says on the Wednesday before Memorial Day, she gave two pieces of Waggin' Train jerky to Heidi as a treat. A few days later, Heidi was throwing up and "in a lot of distress," she says. By the time the holiday rolled around on Monday, Desollar says, Heidi was convulsing in her bed. She died that day, before Desollar could even take her to the vet.
"I didn't know what happened or why," she tells The Salt. "I got on the Internet and I typed into Google 'What killed my dog?' What came up took my breath away."
Desollar found dozens of posts on various websites from people who claim their dogs got sick from eating the same types of chicken jerky treats - all of them imported from China. She also discovered that the FDA was conducting an active investigation into these treats, but the agency has not found any direct evidence that the treats are causing a problem, so it has not issued any recalls. It has issued three warnings to consumers about the products, most recently in November of last year.
There haven't been recalls because the FDA hasn't officially concluded that there's anything wrong with these imported pet treats. Though it has received more than 2,000 complaints about them in the past five years, the FDA's tests haven't turned up any contaminant or adulterant in the treats that would give it a reason to issue a mandatory recall. However, the agency has posted some questions and answers about its investigation of the treats.
The FDA didn't respond to our inquiries, but an FDA official recently told a conference of veterinarians that concerns about the treats might be overblown.
"Two thousand complaints since 2007 is an incredibly small subset of the 15 million animals estimated to consume these treats," Dr. Tracy DuVernoy, with the FDA's Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network, said last month.
DuVernoy didn't rule out a contamination. But she told the veterinarians that, if there is something wrong with the dog treats, it's something the FDA's scientists haven't been able to pin down. "Since a lot has been ruled out," she said, "it might be a very intricate sort of biological response."
DuVernoy was quoted in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association's web coverage of the conference.
The Waggin' Train company says its treats are safe. "The FDA has been looking at this since 2007 and they've been very clear that they haven't found any contaminant," says Keith Schopp, a spokesman for the brand.
While the FDA waits and conducts more testing, Desollar doesn't want retailers to wait. A few weeks ago, she created an online petition demanding that Walgreen's, Walmart, Kroger and other retailers yank the treats off their shelves. Within less than a month, the petition has garnered more than 60,000 signatures.
We contacted several of the retailers on Desollar's list. They said they're waiting to take action until the FDA comes to an official conclusion about whether the pet treats are safe or not.
But Desollar says, at the very least, the stores should give their customers full information about what's already happened.
"Just tell me it's under FDA investigation," she says. "I'll make the decision."
Correction: September 28, 2012 12:00 am — A previous version of this story mischaracterized FDA's actions on the dog treats. FDA has issued three warnings to consumers about these treats. But it has not recalled them.