Free to Roam & Risk
He couldn’t even raise his head, his gums were pale, his pulse weak and thready. Had an injury caused this black German Shepherd mix to bleed internally? Was he anemic from an autoimmune disorder? Had he been poisoned? I remember wishing he could tell me what happened.
Only a minute earlier this big dog had burst through the front door, but not under his own steam. His 80# self was hefted by a couple of burly bearded young men, so highly agitated they were shouting over each other. They’d found their dog barely conscious only 30 minutes earlier, next to their home in Placitas. They were frantic for a miracle.
Martha, the quiet example of composure, was the usual first stop for our clients but had been bypassed this time. She immediately joined the action by inviting these rough but earnest men into an exam room to gather a history. That freed me and Amos to do our best to help – fast.
While holding “Big Blue” on his side on the treatment table, Amos spoke in soothing tones as I palpated the somewhat distended abdomen. Using a syringe I easily withdrew a generous quantity of blood. A quick microscopic exam showed no sign of clotting. Rodent poisoning with an anticoagulant like d-CON topped my list of suspects.
As I ordered a vitamin K1 injection from another veterinary nurse and a venous sample, to estimate blood loss, from another, Amos started warming blood for a transfusion. Speed matters in emergencies but it isn’t always enough. Big Blue passed away in front of us.
Explaining death and comforting grieving pet parents is part of being a veterinarian. It felt exceptionally hard during my first years in practice. It’s no easier now. As I shared my condolences and the likely cause of this tragic loss, larger questions began swirling in the back of my mind: Like many dogs in the free-living community of late 1970s Placitas, was Big Blue allowed to run loose? Would this be an isolated case?
Tomcat Killed Big Blue
The sudden loss of Big Blue triggered a derailment in the brains of the two young men who loved him. He was special to them and, yes, he was allowed to run loose – but so were lots of other free-spirited Placitas dogs. It was a time of peace, love, and rock ‘n roll.
When you only hang out with like-minded folks you can forget that that there are others who may see things differently. If a neighbor is bothered by your dog showing up at their house you would expect them to say so. The possibility of nefarious behavior toward pets was dismissed out of hand. Surely this was an isolated event.
After the grief sunk in to Big Blue’s people I offered to keep his body for them until they decided whether they wanted to bury it or have it cremated. They called the next day, requesting a necropsy (autopsy, in human medical parlance). They’d talked with their neighbors. The general consensus was a collective worry that this may not be a one-off event. I conducted the necropsy and submitted stomach contents to the state diagnostic lab.
As it turned out, Big Blue did not die of d-CON poisoning as I had suspected but from a far more deadly anticoagulant called diphacinone. Just as easy to procure, but significantly more potent, this nasty rodent killer is sold under the trademark Tomcat. The bait traps are considered “pet proof” but not if the stuff is made available to roaming dogs by malicious intent.
Diphacinone was lesser known in 1979. It is so dangerous that even Mighty Mouse, consuming just a small amount, would lose his ability to clot normally. The minor bruising he would sustain from scurrying about and tearing into sacks of peanuts and flour would not heal naturally but bleed continually over at least 3-5 days. Sluggish from his advancing anemia he would be an easy mark for a natural predator like Big Blue to catch and swallow whole. The minute quantity of diphacinone from this live rodent snack would be so toxic that, when digested and absorbed, it could also have ended this 80# dog’s life. That’s not what happened in this case. The toxicology report indicated that a much larger amount had been ingested. Big Blue had eaten it straight.
The Anxiety of Pernicious Poisoning
There were no Nextdoor or Facebook apps in the late ‘70s but word spread fast. A meeting was quickly organized at the elementary school in Placitas featuring Dr. Firestone, a local pediatrician, plus a young veterinarian with sweaty palms. Ah, that was me.
Being sought out as an expert on a toxin I had only just learned existed was a bit daunting. I spoke with Dr. Claire Hibbs, veterinary pathologist at the newly created New Mexico Veterinary Diagnostic lab. He sent the information he had by US Post. (No faxes then either)
My first conversation with Claire, a man old enough to be my father, had involved another recent poisoning – an accidental event. Being the inveterate instructor the good doctor could not help but ask me that agent’s mechanism of action. When I spit out the answer, I got the sense that he was hoping I’d miss so he could advance my knowledge. Maybe I should have brightened his day by feigning ignorance but I’ve always hated looking more stupid than necessary.
When I arrived at the big event, my head swimming with toxicology data, I met Dr. Firestone and an astonishing number of Placitas residents just brimming with anxiety and questions. Would dogs and cats who had been loose in the preceding few days start bleeding internally like Big Blue? (Maybe) Could people get this poison from their pets? (Couldn’t happen) How long would hidden diphacinone remain active? (indefinitely) What at-home remedies would help? (None)
I had back-up. A cranky, old-school, and highly temperamental large animal veterinarian from nearby Corrales presented himself as the expert. The old timer pontificated at length on insecticide toxicity (completely unrelated). Suitably ignored he finally stalked out in a huff. It was embarrassing to endure and, I am not proud to admit, somewhat humorous.
There was actually a reasonable conclusion to the groupthink. I volunteered, at no charge, to perform every necropsy on every pet who succumbed. By extension, this meant that cats and dogs with any symptoms suggestive of poisoning would arrive at my North 4th Street clinic at all hours. Was I crazy? Well, these folks were desperate.
Survivors Helped us Push Ahead
I had offered to help Placitas pet parents with their poisoning problem and, well, they took me up on it with enthusiam. The next morning Gretel, a big hound who I already knew as a wild and active girl, lumbered listlessly through the door. I almost didn’t recognize her. Her gums were pale, her respiratory rate increased. A quick check of her blood showed a serious but not-yet life threatening anemia. And, yes, she’d been allowed to roam loose.
This dog was going to make it – if we moved fast enough. To reduce the risk of even more bleeding I gave Gretel the antidote for diphacinone poisoning, vitamin K1, by injection through a very tiny needle. Only mild sedation was necessary for her to relax enough so we could slide the stomach tube down her esophagus. Up came dog food mixed with suspicious-looking pellets that Amos deftly collected in a plastic jar. Multiple warm water rinses later and our patient’s stomach finally gave back only clear fluid. Activated charcoal was tubed in to absorb any remaining poison.
We fed Gretel small fatty meals that would speed the absorption of oral vitamin K1. She was tough; her bone marrow rallied and over the next few days her gums became gradually pinker. I sent the big girl home on tablets with strict instructions to be kept on-leash or safely confined at home. She would be OK as long as she avoided more rat poison.
Seeing a really sick pet ‘round the corner and go home to recover with its loving family makes me want to dance in the street. But this difficult saga had only started. Gretel’s people freely shared this triumph of modern medicine with their neighbors. Dogs who’d played and roamed with canine poisoning victims arrived for preventive treatment in a steady stream.
The next 3 weeks felt like they’d never end. We treated 11 poisoned dogs; 6 of them survived. It was too late for 7 more who arrived for necropsy, having already passed away at home. Each dog’s stomach contents were submitted for analysis. It became clear that this wasn’t happening in an isolated location. These pets came from all over their rural village. Would this end only when the long arm of the law collared the perpetrator?
Rodent Poisons, Lingering Risk
As word got out that I was the go-to veterinarian for suspected dog poisonings I also became the default repository for conspiracy theories, “common sense” solutions, and intense emotional catharses. Everybody with anything to say (I mean anything) contacted my office, straining at the bit to speak to me directly. But I was busy pumping stomachs.
Of course, the sheriff’s office had been deluged with pleas for help but then, just as suddenly as the poisonings had begun, there were no more. I didn’t believe for a minute that every dog in Placitas was now securely kept home; there weren’t many fenced yards in this village. It was another month before my staff and I finally exhaled.
Rodent poisons like diphacinone can stay active for a long time. Surely, whatever had been so widely distributed in the area hadn’t all been consumed by itinerant dogs. What worried me, as we waited for more tragedies to arrive, were the mouse and rat victims. This wasn’t about my affection for rodents (if they’re not pets, I’d rather be rid of them and their capacity to transmit plague and hantavirus).
Whether used in malicious poisoning or for their intended purpose of killing the little poopers that foul our silverware drawers, rodenticides are never safe for pets. Oh, sure, you can hide these baits where your cat or dog can never reach them but an anemic mouse with a slow internal bleed is easy to catch. Pets who’d eaten this not-so-fast food might have trickled into my clinic over the next few weeks. They didn’t
There is a true Yuck factor in rodent death. These are the critters who’ve quietly retreated to a crawl space, behind a wall, or nestled in heating/cooling ducts for their final resting place. My veterinary clinic, back in the day, was located next door to a feed store. It was a routine, and rather odious, maintenance task to sleuth out the location of decomposing mice above our ceiling tiles. Nothing against grain retailers but I choose different neighbors now.