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 the dog was in good health, but Mocha wasn’t eating. About a week later, in hopes 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 hearing from the veterinarian, who told her that things would be okay. Within days, the Texas woman said Mocha’s condition rapidly deteriorated without explanation. The dog became lethargic, threw up bile, drooled incessantly and had diarrhea. An overnight stay at the vet turned into a trip to an animal hospital for even more testing as doctors scrambled to figure out 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, however, 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 your 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 in a statement that elevated levels of vitamin D may cause vomiting, loss of appetite, excessive drooling and weight loss, among other symptoms.
The 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 gotten extremely sick or died after consuming the food. Some said their vets had prescribed it to them. Others 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 features 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 in the statement 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 it became aware of through a complaint about a sick dog in the United States. The company will now require the supplier to do additional quality testing before releasing ingredients.
Hill’s did not respond to an email or phone calls from The Post requesting further comment Monday. The company has replied to individual Facebook and Twitter posts by referring people to its 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, Va., said in an interview that too much vitamin D can upset the calcium balance in a 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. She added that potentially affected dog food was sold at the clinic, and that clinic employees have reached out to clients who have indicated their dogs are okay.
Joshua McLaughlin, a pet owner in Lakewood, Ohio, said his 15-year-old dog, Leo, fell ill about two years ago. A veterinarian recommended the “Science Diet,” developed by Hill’s to provide canines with optimal nutrition, according to its website.
McLaughlin says Leo was doing well until about last month, when he suddenly began losing weight, drinking excessive water and having trouble walking. Leo died Jan. 29, before McLaughlin had a chance to take him to the vet. McLaughlin said he bought the food online and was emailed Saturday about the recall. He attempted to contact Hill’s on Monday but hasn’t heard back yet.
"We were prepared [for his death] because he was getting older, but to find out this was possibly the reasoning instead of living another year or so is just really heartbreaking because we spent a lot of money buying the food,” McLaughlin said, adding that he may pursue legal action. “At this point I don’t know. I’m just kind of mad.”