DENVER (CBS4) – Richard Thal has two beloved dogs, Simon and Petey, and he was devastated when both of them got severely sick at the same time. Last September they were showing symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss.

“And the black one here started giving off a sour kind of order that was pretty prevalent,” Thal told CBS4.

He took the dogs to a veterinary internal specialist who ran many tests, but there was still no definitive cause for the illness.

“They responded to a change in food, almost immediately,” Thal explained.

Simon and Petey had been eating Beneful dog food for seven years. And while their veterinarian can’t make a direct connection between the food and the dogs’ sicknesses, Thal is convinced.

Simon and Petey (credit: CBS)

Simon and Petey (credit: CBS)

“He was throwing up twice a day, pretty noticeable, and he doesn’t throw up anymore,” Thal said.

Thal joined thousands of dog owners who’ve posted complaints online about Beneful dog food. Many of the posts list the same symptoms, some report dog deaths. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tells CBS4 that it has received about 400 complaints about Beneful dog food over the past four years. In these adverse event reports, there are 480 reports of dogs getting sick, and just more than 140 deaths. The FDA warns that these reports are anecdotal and often don’t include other factors that may have contributed to the pets’ problem.

One California pet owner has filed a federal lawsuit asking for class-action status. The lawsuit alleges that Beneful caused the death of one of his dogs and sickened two others.

In a statement on their Web site, Nestle Purina calls the lawsuit baseless. It says, “We take these allegations very seriously and stand by our product which is backed by Purina’s strict quality controls and comprehensive food safety program.”

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

LINK: Purina Statement

Purina even called Richard Thal.

“They assured me that Purina is careful, and they don’t think it’s their food,” Thal said.

Beneful is a popular dog food. Nestle Purina told CBS4 that during 2014, 1.5 billion meals of Beneful were served to millions of pets all over the world with no adverse reaction. Some of those meals were made in Denver. The Purina plant at York Street and Interstate 70 produces a variety of dry cat and dog foods including Beneful. CBS4 got inspection records for that plant. The Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with overseeing pet food, had no records for last year. The Colorado Department of Agriculture inspectors were at that plant three times — twice to check the scales and once to take samples of several foods.

The FDA tells CBS4 that there is no mandatory number of times they are required to inspect a pet food plant. The federal agency does work with state agencies if any problems are detected.

“We’re looking at the protein, fat, fiber levels, vitamin levels; if they have drugs in them,” said Steve Bornmann, the director of the Division of Inspection and Consumer Services at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture tests up to 500 pet food samples a year. Inspectors are looking for nutritional balance and some contaminants. They are not testing the quality of the ingredients used to make pet food.

“We have an over 90 percent compliance rate with the products that we’re sampling and testing,” Bornmann told CBS4.

Beneful is among 12 pet foods that were tested by a group called Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF). The tests found mycotoxins, or molds and bacteria in Beneful as well as in eight of the other brands.

Although the levels of mycotoxins found in the study did not exceed standards set by the FDA.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

“I think the take away is the pet food companies are not being entirely forthright with us about the quality of the ingredients that are going into the food,” said Dr. Jean Hofve, a retired holistic veterinarian.

The ATPF testing also found nutrient levels exceeding the recommended maximums in seven of the 12 pet foods.

LINK: ATPF Test Results

“If you’re feeding this kind of food every day and they’re building up a load of these toxins, we don’t know what the long-term effects are,” Hofve said.

LINK: Pet Food Institute Reaction To ATPF Test Results

A growing number of veterinarians and industry organizations are showing up online to dispute the test results and refute the allegations against Beneful. Bornmann agrees that pet food is safe for man’s best friend.

“In pet foods, you have to prove it’s safe before you can actually sell it as a pet food,” Bornmann explained.

It’s a designation that is not required of food for people.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture is tasked with making sure the nutritional requirements of pet food are met. They are not required to investigate every claim on a bag of dog food. Words like “super premium” and “holistic food” have no legal definition.

“Those are just advertising words that have no official meaning,” Bornmann said.

And the pictures on the bag may have little bearing on what a dog is eating.

“When it says ‘grilled steak’ with a picture of a beautiful fillet … ain’t nothing remotely like that … in fact, you may not even find any beef in that product, but you may find beef flavor,” Hofve said.

LINK: State Explanation For Understanding Pet Food Labels

Simon and Petey are now eating food that Thal says costs $100 a bag at the vet’s office. Simon has permanent damage to his pancreas and takes an enzyme supplement costing $150 a month.

“I mean they’re like family. It’s sort of an open checkbook, whatever happens. You hope they’re healthy, but if they’re not you do what you have to do,” Thal said. “I just think that people need to be aware and be really careful with their food.”

Libby Smith is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. If you have a story you’d like to tell CBS4 about, call 303-863-TIPS (8477) or visit the News Tips section.