A lot of people are not on good terms with their neighbors. Why do I think this? Because I frequently treat dogs whose owners think their pets have been poisoned by their neighbors. Most of the time I believe these owners are barking up the wrong tree (so to speak).
For instance, not long ago I treated a dog with hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. HGE is a life-threatening condition in which dogs suffer from intestinal distress so severe that markedly bloody diarrhea, bloody vomit, or both are produced. Dehydration can occur rapidly; however, the condition is usually curable with appropriate veterinary care. The owner was convinced that his neighbor had poisoned the dog. However, as we talked further, it turned out that the dog had also broken into the trash the night before the symptoms developed.
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Dietary indiscretion is a leading cause of HGE. Poisoning isn’t. I advised the owner of this, yet he remained unconvinced. It didn’t matter, because the the cause of the symptoms would not significantly impact the treatment (IV fluids, pain killers, intestinal protectants, and antibiotics). The dog recovered, but I imagine that neighborly relations took a serious hit as a result of the illness.
A few weeks ago my office received a call from a very worried person. She stated that she believed her neighbor had poisoned her dogs, and that she was rushing them in. I was highly skeptical until she arrived. She showed up with two dogs, neither of whom exhibited any symptoms. She also showed up with several blocks of green rat poison. Some of the blocks had clearly been gnawed — it was not possible to say whether a dog or a rodent had done the gnawing.
The owner had found the poison in her yard just before calling. She had not placed it there. It was found in her backyard, which was fenced and accessible only through neighbors’ yards. She did not know when the poison was placed, or when (or even whether) either of the dogs had consumed it.
There are three types of poisons used in rat bait used in the United States. It is not possible to identify the type of poison present in a block of rat bait by looking at the block; sophisticated chemical analysis is necessary to distinguish them in these types of cases. That type of analysis would take several days. The two dogs did not have several days. The matter had to be dealt with immediately.
All three types of rat bait are poisonous to dogs. The most common class of poisons at this time (although that is likely to change because the government is trying to abolish its use) belong to a group of chemicals that impair blood clotting. These so-called anticoagulant rodenticides cause animals to hemorrhage uncontrollably. Dogs who consume them might suffer from bleeding into the abdomen, lungs, or intestines. They might bleed from the nose or the mouth. They might cough up blood. They will become weak and lethargic. Virtually all will die without treatment. Fortunately, there is an antidote to these poisons: vitamin K. Dogs who have been exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides generally require four to six weeks of vitamin K therapy. Actively bleeding dogs require plasma transfusions.
The second-most-common poison in rat bait is called bromethalin. It causes the brain to swell, leading to progressive neurological symptoms. Uncoordinated walking in the hind legs occurs first. Symptoms might progress to tremors, seizures, exaggerated responses to stimuli, obtundation, coma, and death. There is no antidote, but fortunately dogs are not especially sensitive to this toxin.
Finally, some rodenticides contain a chemical called cholecalciferol. That chemical is also known as vitamin D. Vitamin D overdoses cause the body to deposit minerals in inappropriate areas. Specifically, they cause mineralization of the kidneys in dogs who consume the poison. Affected dogs might die of kidney failure.
In these types of cases, the safest option is to treat for all three possible poisons. Vitamin K should be administered, and the dogs should be hospitalized for two to three days of IV fluids (to protect the kidneys) and symptomatic treatment of any neurological problems that develop.
That sort of treatment is a hard and expensive pill to swallow. And in this case, there was a further complication: One of the dogs was a rescue who had been abused in his previous life. He was a perfectly nice dog, but he did not tolerate any sort of stress or restraint. Hospitalizing him for several days would have caused him extreme hardship.
Faced with such a mind-blowing array of possible problems and complications, I did what any experienced emergency vet would do: I called animal poison control. The ASPCA offers a 24/7/365 poison-control hotline staffed by specialists in veterinary toxicology. It is an amazing resource, available to veterinarians and pet owners at any time. There is a fee for the service, but in my opinion the fee is a small price to pay for this invaluable resource.
I have spoken with the toxicologists at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control hotline on many occasions. I have worked through some very complicated cases with them. But I can honestly say that, in terms of time intensity, no other case has come close to this one. I spoke with a toxicologist and explained the situation. She spent some time thinking and looking a few things up, and then she called another toxicologist for additional consultation. After about a 30 minute phone call, we came up with a plan that seemed to work for everyone. It boiled down to this:
- Test blood clotting and kidney function in both dogs immediately (result: thankfully, normal in both dogs). Re-test kidney function daily for the next three days, and hospitalize for IV fluids if any abnormalities developed.
- Administer vitamin K to both dogs for four weeks. Test blood clotting after completion of vitamin K.
- Monitor both dogs for any abnormal symptoms, especially lethargy, weakness, disorientation, poor appetite, and vomiting. Seek immediate further care if any such symptoms developed.
- Call the police to report the incident, and scour and cleanse the yard of any further poison.
While the technicians and I worked on the first three steps, the owner worked on the last one. The police came to her house, and several additional blocks of rat poison were found in her yard during the investigation. The owner, understandably, was upset and angry. Last I heard, both dogs were doing fine and the police were investigating the matter further.
What a crazy situation. My neighbors, fortunately, are uniformly nice people. But the incident made me think: If someone tried to poison my pal Buster, I’d be livid. How would I react? The owner of the dogs in this story seemed to exercise remarkable restraint; she was angry, but she was willing to let the police deal with the matter. However, I have a hunch that some folks might not be content to handle the matter in that way; some people, when faced with such a situation, might opt to take justice into their own hands.
What would you do if someone tried to poison your dog? Tell us your feelings in the comments, but please use restraint concerning language.
Read more by Dr. Eric Barchas:
- Why Do Some Dogs Keep “Showing Their Lipsticks”?
- Let’s Talk About Dogs and Euthanasia: When Is It Time? Should You Be Present?
- What to Do Before You Get to the Vet in 12 Emergency Dog Situations
- 12 Dog Emergencies That Need Immediate Veterinary Attention
- Just How Dangerous Is It to Falsely Call a Pet a Service Dog?
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)