A federal judge in Camden this morning approved a $24 million settlement for thousands of owners whose animals were sickened by tainted pet food.

The deal, hammered out earlier this month, resolves more than 100 lawsuits filed in the United States and Canada since an epidemic of sick pets began last year.

Lawyers said today that the country's leading veterinarian organization estimated that 1,500 pets died from commercially sold food that contained tainted wheat gluten grown in China. Thousands more were made ill.

Pet owners would be reimbursed for documented medical expenses, as well as up to $900 for undocumented costs such as wages lost while caring for the animals, property damage, and transportation costs.

"It was a monumental, complicated case," said Sherrie R. Savett, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

The main defendant in the case was Menu Foods Inc., a Canadian manufacturer of about 100 of the contaminated product lines.

The defendants previously paid $8 million to settle other claims.

If the case had gone to trial, one of the most contentious issues would have been whether pet owners could collect damages for emotional distress.

In the eyes of the law, pets are viewed as property, and few courts have allowed owners to collect for the emotional value of their animals.

Some plaintiffs' attorneys said the $900 that owners can collect in undocumented costs was a way to compensate them without referring to emotional distress.

But the defense was adamant today that emotional distress was not part of the settlement.

"A component not included in this settlement is pain and suffering damages," said Mary Gately, a Menu Foods attorney, told the judge. "I just wanted to make that clear."

Thousands of pet owners will receive notice of the settlement by June 16 and will have until early December to submit claims. The goal is to wrap up the case at a final hearing on Oct. 14.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.