The deadly poison at home

After losing two of four cats to tainted pet food, a family finds itself fighting ...

Published May 21, 2007

OLDSMAR - It's 7 a.m. and Debbie Cmar and her husband, Al Montes, are scrambling. Cmar will take their cats, Libby and Bobby Socks, to the vet. Montes will watch their two children. This is the dance the couple performs almost weekly now as the preservation of their cats controls the rhythm of their lives.

If it's not trips to the vet, it's the nightly ritual of injecting a feeding tube intravenously into the animals. Without the daily fluid pack that hangs above the laundry room dryer, Libby faces certain death.

Two of their four cats already have died. All four have suffered kidney disease their veterinarian attributes to contaminated pet food.

The food, Nutro Max Gourmet Classics, did not appear at first on the ever-growing national recall list, and Cmar thought all was well. But then Nutro Max's manufacturer issued a recall, and Gourmet Classics joined hundreds of other products being blamed for the illness and deaths of thousands of cats and dogs nationwide.

Cmar (pronounced Smar) has spent almost $10,000 trying to save Libby and her family's three other cats. Cmar, who runs a small business from home, charged much of it to her Visa card.

As bills mount, she finds herself at a crossroads: continue spending thousands to save Libby? Or does that just prolong the animal's suffering?

"I'm an anxiety-ridden mess," says Cmar, as she weighs the financial issues and the concern that her 4-year-old son, Matthew, and 1-year-old daughter, Maudaline, won't understand the continued loss of their pets.

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By 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, Montes has loaded the carriers in the back seat of his wife's car for a short trip to Safety Harbor.

In the middle of the crush of activity, he notices that Libby's demeanor has changed over the weeks.

"She was the more dominant in the house," he says. "Now she's like, 'Whatever. "

Dashing through traffic lights and back roads, Cmar arrives at the Animal Hospital of Northwood, just after the doors open.

She drops the cats off and leaves. But she can't drop off the relentless anxiety she feels awaiting the vet's report.

While Cmar has had a heart for all of her cats, 7-year-old Libby is unique.

Cmar and Montes picked up the three-legged, white-and-brown domestic from PetSmart after she was abandoned. Libby always had been the most playful.

Two of the family's other cats, Petunia, an 11-year-old Siamese, and 16-year-old Princess, a Persian, died April 18 and 19 after their kidneys failed. Since then, Libby's been trying to make it.

It's 8 a.m. when Dr. Don Woodman arrives. Libby and Bobby Socks, a short-haired domestic, are first on his list.

Bobby Socks appears fine. But Libby has lost 2 pounds in about a week, down to 7 pounds, 15 ounces. A year ago, she was more than 10 pounds.

Woodman concludes the family's cats clearly suffer from contaminated pet food.

"The Cmar's case is basically a slam dunk," Woodman says. "We had four cats in the same house that had kidney disease at the same time. It's a heartbreaking case."

Concern about the nation's pet food supply arose in March after it was determined that a chemical used to make plastics, called melamine, was found in countless dog and cat mixes. It was added to pet food because it appears to bolster protein content, but it is harmful to the animals' kidneys.

Woodman's assistants, Collette Clarke and Lisa Lombardi, draw blood from Libby's and Bobby Socks' throats to see how their kidneys are fairing.

The cats are caged, again, until Montes picks them up about noon.

It will be about 18 hours before all the test results are ready. The doctor cautions Montes that if the prognosis isn't good, Libby might need 24-hour care, which could cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more.

John Canel, of Nutro Products Inc.'s customer service department, says pet owners who believe his company's food may have poisoned their animal should file a claim. Nutro Products' insurance company will reimburse costs for substantiated claims.

Cmar, who has filed a claim, said the company has been helpful. She's still waiting to see whether she will be reimbursed.

Meanwhile, she's fighting another battle -- her own feelings of guilt.

"I stay sick to my stomach," Cmar says. "We were feeding them direct poison. Even though you know you didn't mean to, it's hard. It's hard to shake it off."

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Just after 6 p.m. Thursday, Cmar checks her home voice mail. She missed a call from the animal hospital.

The message: Libby has developed anemia. But the phone message doesn't have many details.

Cmar's imagination runs wild: What does it mean? Maybe Libby won't need the 24-hour care. With the vet's office closed for the evening, she has to keep wondering until morning.

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Just after 11 a.m. Friday, a fax comes in from the vet's office with Libby's test results.

Her red blood count is low. But there is no apparent immediate need for 24-hour care.

They'll have to see whether Libby can produce enough red blood cells on her own. In other words, more waiting for Cmar; she's down.

Later Friday, she's up: The vet tells her that Libby's vital signs have improved, and he doesn't need to see the cat for two weeks.

"This is what I'm talking about: it's like a roller coaster," she says. "It's just enough to drive you bananas."

Ivan Penn covers consumer issues. He can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or 727-892-2332.