A Connecticut couple is filing a class action lawsuit against a dog food company, distributor and stores that supply their products after their two dogs died from what they believe are tainted chicken jerky treats manufactured in China.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received more than 1,800 complaints since 2007 about a variety of chicken jerky dog treats sickening dogs across the country. Connecticut dog owners Philip and Elizabeth Mawaka claim that treats manufactured by Waggin’ Train – which are available at Walmart, Sam’s Club and other pet stores nationally – caused the illness and subsequent deaths of their Boston terriers Max and Toby.
"We lost two dogs in less than a year,” Elizabeth Mawaka said emotionally.
"Max, the older dog, was my baby,” Mawaka’s husband, Phil, said.
Last year, the Mawakas’ beloved Boston terrier Max died after eating Waggin’ Train chicken jerky treats. In May, Toby died from similar symptoms.
"As Toby was getting sicker, he was eating less, we were giving him more of these jerkies because he liked them and it was the only thIng he really liked at that time,” Elizabeth Mawaka recalled.
Now, the Mawakas believe the treats they hoped would cheer up their dogs - purchased at Walmart and Sam’s Club - are to blame.
"He was having seizures, he was incontinent, he was not eating,” Mawaka said, describing Toby in the height of his discomfort.
It turns out the Mawaka family is not alone. In addition to more than 1,800 complaints filed with the FDA, 8 dog deaths have been reported. 242 of the total complaints have been made public by the FDA. Those complaints
Analysis by the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters found that Waggin’ Train received the most complaints. Dog owners cited Waggin’ Train for 6 of the 8 reported deaths.
In response to the complaints, the FDA recently tested nearly 300 chicken jerky treats submitted by pet owners. However, no connection to pet illness was established.
“We can’t recall a product when we don’t have the contaminant identified,” FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward said by phone.
stating in part that "chicken jerky treats may be associated with illness in dogs.” The treats in question were specified by the FDA to be imported from China.
The most common symptoms, according to the FDA, include vomiting, urination, diarrhea, change in appetite and change in energy level.
NBC Connecticut asked Waggin’ Train why they continue to sell these treats and whether they plan to reevaluate their safety. In a statement, spokesman for both Nestle Purina and Waggin’ Train Keith Schopp said:
“Waggin’ Train products are safe to be fed as directed. I also emphasize millions of happy and healthy dogs enjoy chicken jerky treats every year. At Waggin’ Train, we care about pets and the safety of our products is a top priority.”
The Mawaka family, however, disagrees about the safety of these treats. They believe they were misled by their packaging.
"These little chicken jerky treats were not cheap. They were expensive. The only reason we bought them was there were only two ingredients listed: chicken and vegetables glycerin," Elizabeth Mawaka told NBC Connecticut.
“You think you're giving your dogs something extremely healthy and without by products, without added chemicals,” Mawaka said.
Their veterinarian, Dr. William Haines of Hartford Veterinary Hospital, says that although the treats could have been a factor, it is not clear if Toby and Max’s deaths were specifically caused by chicken jerky treats. Regardless, Haines recommends that dog owners avoid chicken jerky and all other processed treats.
"I just see enough problems with these raw hides, these pigs ears and those kinds of things that they're not what a dog would normally be eating,” Haines said. “You never know what the processing is and I just don’t like them.”
Despite the numerous complaints made to the FDA, these treats are still on the shelves at Walmart in Hartford and several locations across the country. Other stores like Costco and PetSmart continue to sell Waggin’ Train chicken jerky treats.
When asked about the manufacturing of these treats in China, Schopp countered that the chicken jerky treats are “made in China in facilities that are modeled after USDA standards for safety and quality.”
“We have stringent procedures and guidelines in place,” Schopp added. “And those safety and sanitation guidelines are monitored by a dedicated team of quality control inspectors.”
Meanwhile, the Mawakas have lodged a class action lawsuit in Connecticut against Waggin’ Train, their distributor Nestle-Purina, Walmart and Sam’s Club.
"We want to see the product pulled off the shelves because it's just going to hurt other dogs,” Elizabeth Mawaka said.
Their lawyer, Bruce Newman, says the Mawakas are suing on the basis that “the products themselves were not fit for the purposes intended. These were not safe treats to give your dog.”
The Mawakas are also seeking “out of pocket expenses, lost wages in term so taking dog to vet, cost of replace to the breed,” in addition to banning Waggin’ Train chicken jerky treats from store shelves, according to the case filing.
Dog owners in 8 other states have also filed a class action lawsuit against these chicken jerky treats. They hope to join the Mawaka family’s
. The widened lawsuit aims to represent nearly all U.S. pet owners who bought dog treat products made or sold by Nestle Purina containing chicken imported from China in the past four years, according to court records obtained by NBC News.
The Mawakas say the death of Toby and Max eerily remind them of a 2007 food scare in China, in which melamine-tainted pet food sickened and killed dogs in the United States.
When NBC Connecticut asked Walmart and Sam’s Club why they continue to stock these treats, Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for both stores cited the FDA’s inconclusive testing.
“So far the FDA has been unable to identify the cause of the illnesses or find any connection linking the illnesses with specific brands or types of chicken jerky treats,” Hargrove said in a statement to NBC Connecticut.
“If evidence is found linking a contaminant to a product we sell, we will take appropriate action,” he added.
These days, the Mawakas are trying to move on with their new Boston Terrier, 3-month-old Sam. They exclusively purchase treats manufactured in the United States.
“No food, no toys, no chew toys, nothing made in China,” Elizabeth Mawaka declared.
She is also making treats at home, as advised by Dr. Haines.
“Get some chicken breast, boil it up, make little cubes out of it and feed those as a goody,” Haines said. “Then you know what you’re feeding.”
As he vigilantly monitors puppy Sam’s diet, Philip Mawaka hopes their story will help prevent potential future tragedies for dog owners who call their dogs are family.
"If they saw the way my dog suffered, I think they might do something about it,” he said.
If you believe your pet is suffering from eating a particular kind of treat, you should consult your veterinarian immediately. You may also