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Pfizer lawsuit: Pet owners file complaint over Rimadyl, animal drug they say killed their dog

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Although Sophie was six years old, the golden retriever was still a puppy in the eyes of her owners, Christopher Cooper and Shelley Smith. But then, after undergoing knee surgery, she became ill and stayed that way for more than a month before dying as her owners raced to the animal hospital. Cooper and Smith blame a drug called Rimadyl for this trauma -- and they've filed suit against Pfizer, the drug giant that makes it.

"I know we're going up against Goliath," Cooper says. "But we have to try."

The lawsuit, filed under the auspices of attorney Jennifer Edwards and What Ridge's Animal Law Center, tells the tale. On May 26, 2009, Sophie was referred to Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists in regard to a ruptured cranial cruciate ligament. After her lab work came back normal, surgery took place on June 5, and everything seemed to go well. She was sent home, and Cooper and Smith were given three forms of medication -- including Rimadyl, an anti-inflammatory that's frequently used to treat arthritis -- to help her through the post-operative period.

Side effects were uncommon, the pair say they were told. But just over a week later, Sophie stopped eating and began vomiting overnight. After consulting with Aspen Meadow on June 16, they stopped giving her the prescribed medication -- but this didn't prove to be a miracle cure. Subsequent tests reportedly showed signs of Rimadyl toxicity, and while vets said most dogs recover from this problem in three to seven days, she remained hospitalized for just shy of two weeks amid signs that her liver was failing.

Sophie returned home on June 30, but her symptoms persisted, and on July 9, she was admitted to Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital for a biopsy. More back-and-forth followed, with Sophie returning to CSU for emergency testing on July 25. The next day, Cooper and Smith were told Sophie's condition was grim -- but before they could reach the hospital, they received word that she had died.

Throughout her illness, the couple did research on Rimadyl, and Cooper says they learned that "this drug is problematic, especially in retriever breeds -- and had I known that information prior to surgery, I probably wouldn't have allowed them to give her the drug. She was in the prime of her life, and she really didn't need it. And if we had given her the drug and we'd known what it could do, we would have rushed her to the hospital as soon as she became symptomatic. But we lost three days because we didn't know." According to attorney Edwards, Rimadyl was the subject of a class-action lawsuit in 1999, and ultimately, Pfizer, its manufacturer, was ordered to put out a series of warnings that Cooper and Smith say weren't passed along to them. Shortly after Sophie's death, they explored the possibility of a similar suit, and Edwards says she heard plenty of horror stories during that process. "We had almost 250 cases of people sending us information, vet records, filling out our questionnaires," she notes. "Clearly, the figures Pfizer is giving out about its safety" -- the company says it has been used on ten million dogs and is generally safe when precautions are followed -- "don't add up with the amount of notification we're getting."

Pfizer has a huge financial stake in Rimadyl, not to mention enormous resources to use in defense of the lawsuit. But even if the complaint isn't successful, Smith says filing it is important when it comes to "getting awareness out there, because it's prescribed so often. We took our puppy to get spayed, and they wanted to give her Rimadyl as an anti-inflammatory -- and she's a puppy! If it causes liver damage in adult dogs, imagine what it might do to a puppy whose organs haven't fully developed yet."

That a vet would suggest prescribing an arthritis medication to a puppy suggests to Cooper that Pfizer is putting profits ahead of good medicine. "I'd like to force Pfizer to pull the drug until they do more research, or some third-party research, to find out if it's going to kill your dog," he allows. "I know some people whose dogs have done pretty well on Rimadyl, but I think the risks may outweigh the benefits."

Edwards expresses confidence about their chances. "I think we will be successful," she maintains. "As with any litigation, it could take a long period of time -- but maybe Pfizer will do the right thing. Maybe they'll agree to do more research and do a little more analysis, and do something to avoid any more animals dying, or at least limit the number of dogs that have to suffer and die. That's all my clients are asking for them to do."

Adds Smith: "A lot of people don't consider pets to be a part of the family, but we certainly do. Sophie was our child, and it just broke our heart to have her go through this. And we don't want other people, or their pets, to go through it, too."

Look below to read the lawsuit in its entirety.

Christopher Cooper and Shelley Smith vs Pfizer

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