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Greenies: A safe or deadly treat?
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Greenies: A safe or deadly treat?

Denise Flaim
Animal House

December 19, 2005

It is the nation's top-selling dog treat, with $315 million in domestic retail sales last year.

It is so beloved by dogs that amused owners have a nickname for it - doggie crack.

And it is the reason, contend Michael Eastwood and Jennifer Reiff of Manhattan, that their miniature dachshund, Burt, is no longer alive.

On July 22, as she'd done regularly for the past year and a half, Reiff gave the 4-year-old rescue dog his Greenies treat. The next day, Burt was on an operating table, where vets removed three feet of necrotic intestine and what looked like a soft foamy green mass.

Two days later, Burt was dead.

The couple says S&M NuTec of North Kansas City, Mo., the manufacturer of Greenies, sent an e-mail expressing sadness for their loss, and offered to pay the almost $6,600 in medical bills as well as $2,000, the estimated purchase price for a mini-dachsie like Burt. In return, Eastwood and Reiff would have to sign a confidentiality agreement and agree not to pursue legal action.

"That incensed us even more," says Eastwood, who along with Reiff has filed a $5 million lawsuit, charging that Greenies are "unsafe, inadequately labeled" and ultimately caused Burt's death.

Invented by a couple plagued by their dog's chronic bad breath, toothbrush-shaped Greenies are marketed as "multifunctional dental treats" that, when used daily, reduce tartar by 62 percent and gingivitis by 33 percent. The company stresses that owners feed the correct size Greenies for their dog's weight and follow the feeding guidelines, which say the treats should not be fed to dogs who "gulp."

(For toy breeds, young puppies and the chew-averse, the company developed Greenies Lil' Bits. It also recently unveiled Feline Greenies for cats.)

Eastwood counters that Burt did not choke on his Greenie and was always supervised when consuming the treat. "The Greenie was a foreign object in his intestines."

S&M NuTec declined to comment on the litigation but disputes there is any problem with the treat's digestibility.

"The digestibility testing that we have with Greenies shows them to be more digestible than the average dry dog food when adequately chewed ... " reads the company's e-mailed statement. "If a dog swallows a large piece of Greenies, or a whole treat, the digestion process will be extended because of the decrease of treat surface area to digestive liquids and stomach action."

Veterinarian Brendan McKiernan of Wheat Ridge, Colo., a board-certified internist, disagrees. "They don't dissolve in the stomach," he says. "When we take them out, they're not digested. And they are causing both esophageal and intestinal problems in dogs to an extent that is concerning."

S&M NuTec says Greenies obstructions are "rare," with most caused by improperly following feeding instructions.

But McKiernan believes incidents are underreported. Earlier this year, at a meeting of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, a group of gastroenterologists discussed obstructions caused by "compressed vegetable chew treats" such as Greenies. By an informal show of hands, he says, "a significant number said, 'Hey, we have problems.'"

Concerned about such cases in his own practice, McKiernan set out to study reports of obstructions from 1999 to 2004 in the Veterinary Medical Database, which records cases from two dozen vet schools.

The results, outlined in a multi-authored article soon to be submitted to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, found that, after bones and fish hooks, compressed vegetable chew treats were the third-most-common culprit in obstructions.

McKiernan notes that the cases mostly involved small dogs.

But big dogs have their issues with compressed vegetable chew treats, too. Elaine Gewirtz of Westlake Village, Calif., says she fed Greenies to her Dalmatians and "never had problems" - until Jimmy went to live with her daughter and started getting more than his usual ration.

The 5-year-old Dal had three bouts of unexplained vomiting. As Gerwirtz walked him outside the vet's office that last time, "he vomited, and there was all this green stuff.

"I really think it's hit or miss," Gerwirtz says, noting that voracious chewers like Jimmy may be prone to problems. Still, she no longer gives her dogs Greenies.

It's a decision that Eastwood wishes he had been given the opportunity to make.

"We always felt if this product had fair warning and fair labeling," he concludes, "we would never have put our dog in harm's way."

WRITE TO Denise Flaim, c/o Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747-4250, or e-mail
[email protected] . For previous columns,

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.

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