By Hugh R. Morley

The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. - A wave of lawsuits filed by cat and dog owners who claim their pets were sickened or killed by anti-flea or tick medication is targeting five New Jersey companies that make or sell the treatment.

Secaucus-based Hartz Mountain Corp., Summit VetPharm LLC of Rutherford, Morristown-based Bayer Healthcare LLC, Merck & Co. Inc. of Whitehouse Station and Sanofi-Aventis Inc. of Bridgewater are named as defendants in suits filed over the last four months.

Five pet owners filed suit against Hartz Mountain and Summit VetPharm last week in U.S. District Court in Newark, alleging that their flea or tick treatments contained Pyrethrin, or a synthetic version of the chemical Pyrethroids, which are "known to poison animals."

Both companies are owned by Sumitomo Corporation of America, the New York-based subsidiary of a Japanese trading and investment company, the suit says.

The suit accuses the companies of negligence, violating New Jersey's consumer fraud law and liability for creating an "unreasonably dangerous product." The products named include Hartz Ultra Guard flea and tick drops and Summit VetPharm's Vectra 3d.

A Hartz spokeswoman said, "Hartz has not been officially served with this suit, and it is company policy not to comment on litigation." A spokeswoman for Sumitomo did not respond to a request for comment.

Also named as a defendant is Sergeant's Pet Care Products Inc. of Nebraska, which makes flea and tick products.

The suit follows two similar suits against Hartz filed in Arizona and New Jersey. One states that Hartz, with 1,600 employees, holds a 50 percent share "of the retail sales channel" and makes 20 percent of such products sold.

Summit VetPharm also faces similar allegations in a second suit filed in New Jersey.

Bayer Healthcare, which makes K9 Advantix flea and tick control medication, also faces at least one suit. So does Merial Ltd. of Georgia, a joint venture of Merck and Sanofi-Aventis, which are also named as defendants in the suit.

Most of the suits seek class-action status.

Natasha Joseph, a spokeswoman for Merial, declined to comment on the suit but said the company has confidence in its product.

"Our adverse events have been very low since the product was introduced," she said.

Sergeant's Pet Care Products and Bayer did not return requests for comment.

Filed on behalf of pet owners, the suits contain detailed descriptions of how animals treated with flea and tick drops were allegedly sickened or died.

Rich Parsons of California said he worried he might be carrying fleas when he returned from helping reconstruct parts of the Mississippi Gulf after Hurricane Katrina, and that he might infect his Scottish terrier, Duffy. So Parsons treated his dog with Hartz flea and tick drops, the suits says.

"Duffy tragically died at the veterinarian's facility three days later," the suit says. It adds that the veterinarian said the death was due to a "reaction to the insecticide."

The suit says Parsons contacted Hartz, which reviewed the case and denied any responsibility, saying that the dog's death was due to "underlying health problems."

Parsons and other plaintiffs want the court to order a recall of the flea and tick products and to award them compensation for damages.

The Parsons suit says that "in 2008 alone, there were approximately 48,000 reports of adverse events from the spot-on or squeeze-on products including pyrethrins, Permethrin or other pyrethroids."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the products, has seen a "sharp increase in adverse consequences" from them, the suit says. It cites an EPA advisory released last May, updated in January, stating that although many people use the products without harming their pets, owners should "take precautions" when using them.

"Adverse reactions reported range from mild effects such as skin irritation to more serious effects such as seizures, and in some cases, death of the pet," the advisory said.

Michael S. Green, an East Brunswick, N.J., attorney whose firm has filed four flea and tick suits, said they were prompted in part by the high number of complaints to the EPA.

Green, whose firm specializes in class-action suits, said the medication, usually in drop form, is generally put on the dog's shoulder blades so the animal can't lick it but it is absorbed into the skin.

"It's supposed to be attacking the nervous system of the insects," he said. "But clearly it also in some way is causing adverse effects on the nervous system of the dogs as well."