COLUMBIA, S.C. – 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 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."
Through relocations from Army bases in Georgia, Oklahoma, Washington and now South Carolina, Cocoa has been a constant companion for Stewart, whose father is serving in Iraq.
When her own daughter died last year, Stewart said Cocoa helped her through her grief. "It was like she understood," Stewart said. "She was my best friend."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that at least 76 dogs nationwide are believed to have died as a result of eating contaminated 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 to November 2005. Based on sample testing, Diamond has narrowed down the exposure to food produced on Oct. 11, Brinkmann said Thursday.
The FDA and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture have launched investigations.
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.
Stewart initially thought Cocoa had refused to eat because she was depressed about losing Chulo. After the recall, the family vet confirmed aflatoxin poisoning in Cocoa, Stewart said.
Steve Shrum, president of the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians, said vets around the state were confused when puppies began showing signs of liver problems usually seen in older dogs.
"It takes such a small amount, and there's pretty much nothing you can do with the process that will inactivate that toxin once it gets in the food supply," he said.
Diamond has promised to reimburse pet owners for vet bills and other costs associated with the aflatoxin poisoning, which officials now believe 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, Brinkmann said.
Stewart says she has not spoken with anyone at the company despite several calls. The family has filled out an online form explaining their situation.
"You don't get anybody to talk to and tell your story," she said. "It's like they're not concerned. To me, it's like they're saying, 'Oh well, we'll get to it when we get to it.'"
Brinkmann was sympathetic.
"We're going as fast as we can," he said. "I grieve with her, and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure we can do right by her."