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

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

Lawyers said yesterday 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.

The lawsuits arose from the largest pet-food recall in history. The source of the contaminant was traced to a chemical used to make plastics that was added to the wheat gluten before it was exported to the United States.

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

"No result from litigation can make up for the loss that these pet owners suffered," Savett said in court.

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

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

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said it was not clear "what the $900 payment is all about."

"You certainly could construe it . . . as a way of getting the plaintiffs some relief," he said.

He said the possibility of creating law with the case could have been a bargaining chip for the plaintiffs.

"Maybe you pay off some additional money to avoid any precedent-setting issues," he said.

Thousands of pet owners are to 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 hearing on Oct. 14.

Plaintiffs' attorneys asked for 25 percent of the settlement in fees. Any settlement money left over would be donated to animal-welfare charities.

A Web site will be established to inform pet owners on the settlement, attorneys said.

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