- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Caring for her ailing 9-year-old chow has taken over Shanika Stewart’s life.

Cocoa must be force-fed with a syringe six times a day since suffering permanent liver damage after eating contaminated dog food.

“I haven’t had any time to do anything but take care of her,” said Miss Stewart, a 19-year-old nursing student at the University of South Carolina. “She’s the No. 1 priority. … I get maybe four hours of sleep before she wakes me up.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that at least 76 dogs nationwide are thought to have died as a result of eating contaminated food products from Diamond Pet Foods.

Diamond officials say they are doing what they can to help affected pet owners.

“It’s going to take some time to take care of all these customers, and we’re going to do it,” said the company’s chief operating officer, Mark Brinkmann.

The company has recalled 19 varieties of dog and cat food because tests showed high levels of aflatoxin, a naturally occurring toxic chemical that comes from a fungus found on corn and other grains that causes severe liver damage in animals.

The company recalled products manufactured at its Gaston, S.C., plant from around September 2005 to November 2005. Based on sample testing, Diamond has narrowed down the exposure to food produced on Oct. 11, Mr. Brinkmann said Thursday.

The FDA and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture have launched investigations.

Miss Stewart’s other dog, a 2-year-old pit bull named Chulo, died last month just hours after being diagnosed with liver failure. It was only then that the family learned of the recall.

Through relocations from Army bases in Georgia, Oklahoma, Washington and now South Carolina, Cocoa has been a constant companion for Miss Stewart, whose father is serving in Iraq.

When her daughter died last year, Miss Stewart said Cocoa helped her through her grief.

“It was like she understood,” Miss Stewart said. “She was my best friend.”

Diamond has promised to reimburse pet owners for veterinarian bills and other costs associated with the aflatoxin poisoning, which officials now think may include pets in Europe and other areas outside the country where the food is distributed.

The company set up a call center staffed with veterinarians. The call volume peaked at about 2,000 calls a day last week, Mr. Brinkmann said.

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