I   've known Jimmy Spells for nigh on to 20 years. I've seen him angry. I've seen him frustrated. I've seen him sad. I've seen him hurt to his inner core.

But I never saw the man cry.

Until Tuesday morning, that is.

That's when he told me about the death of his beloved Dewdrop ... an 111/2-year-old bichon frise that had become like a member of his family.

Dewdrop died last weekend.

"I feel like I've lost my best friend," Spells said.

I understood, of course, because I've been down that road myself a few times with pets I've loved dearly. It's heartbreaking.

What complicates this story somewhat is Spells insists on placing the blame for Dewdrop's death on his own shoulders.

If only he'd paid closer attention, he said. If only he'd been more aware of the changes in Dewdrop's condition last Saturday, when he stopped eating, refused to jump down from the sofa or jump up into Spells' lap, when he was panting incessantly.

If only he'd known that the dog treats he'd been giving Dewdrop once or twice a day -- and which he truly enjoyed -- had been under investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because a large number of dogs had died after eating them, going back several years.

But he didn't know until a friend told him about it on Monday.

And then it was too late to help Dewdrop.

"She asked me what kind of treats I'd been feeding Dewdrop," Spells said, "and when I told her, she told me I needed to go online to read about Waggin' Train Wholesome Chicken Jerky Tenders, about which there were literally thousands of complaints."

Complaints from pet owners. Complaints from veterinarians. All of whom had reason to believe their dogs had died after eating the chicken treats, which were made in China.

That's the key -- the treats were made in China.

According to an NBC News story from February 2012, "amid reports of more than 500 dogs sickened by chicken jerky pet treats imported from China, (U.S.) government health officials are ramping up port inspections for dangerous toxins."

The Food and Drug Administration has been "collecting and testing chicken jerky treats ... analyzing samples for evidence of melamine and melamine analogs and diethylene glycol, chemicals used in plastics and resins," the NBC News story reported.

But Spells knew nothing about that. He'd been feeding Dewdrop the Waggin' Train chicken jerky treats for years and had no reason to think there was anything wrong with them.

Then, he said, all of a sudden his dog started refusing the treats.

"Normally, I'd give him a treat when he came back into the house after doing his morning business. And he'd snatch it right up. He always enjoyed the treats. Crazy about them. Then all of a sudden, he wouldn't touch them," Spells said.

"I should have known something was wrong with those treats," he said.

But the thing was, the Waggin' Train dog treats were being sold here in York County in at least five or six different retail locations, Spells said. That despite an FDA investigation that had been going on for more than a year.

In fact, he had just purchased a 40-ounce bag at one local store the week before, and it clearly states it was "manufactured for and distributed by Waggin' Train LLC, St. Louis, Mo. -- a product of China."

As it turns out, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, the same day Spells' dog refused to eat the chicken jerky treats, the Nestle Purina PetCare Co. and its wholly owned subsidiary Waggin' Train LLC, announced it was voluntarily withdrawing Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch brand dog treats from being sold in the United States until further notice.

The company took that action after learning that the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets had found trace amounts of antibiotic residue in samples of chicken jerky products. The antibiotics are approved for use in China and European Union member states, but not in the United States.

But Spells wasn't aware of that, either.

Spells believes his precious Dewdrop, a previously healthy dog under regular veterinary care, died from liver or kidney failure after eating the dog treats made in China.

"A month ago, the dog was in perfect health," Spells said. "And then he died suddenly. He didn't live long enough for me to get him to the vet on Monday morning."

Of course, he has no proof. It costs a lot of money to have an animal necropsy performed. And Spells said he couldn't afford it.

"I'm grieving, but my main concern is to prevent anyone else here in York County from going through what I've gone through. We all love our dogs. So read the package. If you're feeding your dog chicken treats made in China, stop right away. Better safe than sorry."

It could be a matter of life or death ... for your dog.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.