A housewife who turned online detective to investigate the cat ‘poisoning’ scandal believes she may have sparked a huge recall of premium foods.
Vicky Winchester, 37, managed to track down the suspected source of a rare cat disease by using Facebook to find other victims.
The mother-of-three took action after her ragdoll kittens Delilah and Darcy fell ill with feline pancytopenia – a rare blood condition that causes the number of blood cells to fall rapidly.
Mrs Winchester, from Swansea, created the Facebook group Pancytopenia in Cats Awareness UK to find bereaved owners and look into why cases of the illness were rising.
Vicky Winchester (pictured with one of her cats Darcey), 37, managed to track down the suspected source of a rare cat disease by using Facebook to find other victims
Within hours the group had hundreds of members – and it now boasts more than 12,000.
After setting up polls to look for links between the affected cats, within 48 hours Mrs Winchester found that almost all of them had eaten the Applaws, Pets at Home’s AVA or Sainsbury’s Hypoallergenic Recipe brands.
She then identified a common manufacturing code on the back of all three – GB218E5009 – which was for Fold Hill Foods Limited production plant in Boston, Lincolnshire.
Mrs Winchester emailed the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) on June 14 and, within 24 hours, a product recall was issued for all three brands.
HR director Sarah Lawrence, who joined the group after losing her three-year-old Maine Coon Sterling, then collated the evidence and presented it to lawyers Leigh Day.
HR director Sarah Lawrence (pictured with her cat Shadow), who joined the group after losing her three-year-old Maine Coon Sterling, then collated the evidence and presented it to lawyers Leigh Day
The firm is now leading a group legal action on behalf of hundreds of clients – mostly from Mrs Winchester’s Facebook group.
At least 330 cats have died from the illness, according to the RVC, but the true number is likely to be higher.
A direct link has not been proven between the premium food brands but the RVC and Food Standards Agency (FSA) are investigating.
Mrs Winchester, who lives with her husband Ben, 38, told the Daily Mail: ‘I am convinced our work led to the product recall.
‘We are just normal people. The vets, the producers, the food safety experts, they are the ones who should have stopped this. I know they were already looking into it, but it was our research that made them take action.’
Common signs of feline pancytopenia include lethargy and loss of appetite, though in some cases there is also bleeding from the mouth or bruising.
After setting up polls to look for links between the affected cats, within 48 hours Mrs Winchester found that almost all of them had eaten the Applaws, Pets at Home’s AVA or Sainsbury’s Hypoallergenic Recipe brands
An RVC spokesman said it first noticed an increase in cases at the beginning of May. Initial enquiries led to a formal call for information from vets before Defra and the FSA were informed later in the month.
Details were made public by the FSA in June – weeks after it had launched an investigation – but the announcement was overshadowed by attention given to Covid-19. The agency said tests carried out on batches of the food have identified mycotoxins, which are produced by certain types of mould and are linked to feline pancytopenia.
However, a spokesman stressed these are widely found in some foods and are not necessarily the cause of the illness.
Fold Hill Foods, which sells the Applaws range through Amazon and pet shops, said it had issued a ‘voluntary and precautionary recall’ of the selected products.
A spokesman added they would ‘continue to fully co-operate with both the FSA and the RVC’ during their investigation.
Pets at Home said it was also working with experts to find the source of the illness. A spokesman added: ‘The health and welfare of pets is always our top priority... Many of our colleagues are also cat owners themselves and our thoughts are with everyone affected.’
Sainsbury’s said it was supporting the investigation and urged customers who had already bought the selected products to return them immediately.