Dog owner whose pet choked wants shape of dog treat changed

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Jessica Rennard wants Zukes to change size of its miniature treats after her dog died choking on one. (Ben Mikesell/Staff Photographer)

I'M NOT A dog person.

They're dirty. They smell. I hate when they jump on me. If I smile, I'm faking it. I cringe inside when dogs use my yard as a toilet - even if their owners clean up after them. I'd rather not eat in the same room as a furry friend, especially if they are under the table begging for scraps. They ruin my appetite.

So, believe me, the last thing I want to write about is someone's dog.

But I met Jessica Rennard backstage earlier this month at a fashion-show fundraiser for the Career Wardrobe and was struck by the randomness of what had happened to her puppy. It's hard not to be. As she pointed out, "You just don't think that you give your dog a treat and you're never going to see them again."

Her saga started in May. She'd taken her new border-collie puppy out for a walk, and when she returned to her home in Chester Springs, she gave him a treat. Rennard then turned to hang up his leash as Kevin - named after Macauley Culkin's character in "Home Alone" - went into the living room ahead of her.

When Rennard got there, she found Kevin lying on his side with his tongue hanging out. Assuming he'd had some sort of allergic reaction, she picked him up, and that's when blood began coming out of his mouth. Panicked, she rushed Kevin to the nearby Eagle Animal Hospital. But it was too late. Kevin was dead.

"Kevin aspirated on a circular foreign object, which then completely occluded the trachea causing asphyxiation," according to his necropsy report. The bleeding came from a hemorrhage in the dog's throat caused by "a strong retching reflex." Rennard was inconsolable. She spent weeks grieving the loss of her newest family member.

Then she got pissed.

Now, she's out to pressure Zuke's, the manufacturer of Zuke's Mini Naturals, which she had given to Kevin that day, to change the shape so that no other puppy suffers the way hers did.

I spoke with David Matunis, a veterinarian at the Eagle Animal Hospital, who called what happened a "freak accident."

"It's pretty uncommon for dogs to aspirate on treats and choke on them," he said. "We just don't see it that often." (Vets at the University of Pennsylvania also confirmed that this is an extremely rare occurrence and said yesterday that they hardly ever see such cases.)

The manufacturer of Zuke's Mini Naturals reached a similar conclusion. "We agree with her veterinarian's conclusion that the incident was 'a freak accident of aspirating food,' " Chris Meiering, Zuke's founder, wrote in an email.

"Zuke's Mini Naturals are a safe product. Since their introduction in 2003, millions of packages of these treats have been fed by consumers to their dogs without a similar incident."

Yesterday I scanned dozens of customer reviews of the product on Amazon and didn't see any complaints about it being a choking hazard.

Meiering added: "As pet lovers, we know how sad it is to lose a pet. While this was an isolated incident, we offered to make a donation in Kevin's name to the pet-rescue group of his owner's choice."

That's not enough for Rennard, who has begun collecting signatures on an online petition on Change.org to try to force Zuke's to change the shape of its Mini Naturals treat. They're about the size of a pencil eraser. She thinks they should have holes to allow air to pass through, or else should be more oblong.

So far, she's gotten nearly 1,500 signatures.

No doubt she'll get more as a result of this column. I'm happy to help her and any other dog owner who needs to spotlight a situation. All I ask is that they keep their dogs off me.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

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Email: armstrj@phillynews.com