Browsing tag: toxins

Murder mystery after Crufts: what to do when malicious poisoning is suspected as the cause of death

It’s rare for the death of a dog to make international headlines. Jagger was a good-looking three year old Irish Setter who died in Belgium, the day after returning from Crufts, where he had won a prize for being second in his class. The reason for the interest from the mass media was this: Jagger’s owner claimed that his death was caused by deliberate poisoning.

Jagger died soon after returning from Crufts

The day after competing in Crufts in Birmingham on Thursday, Jagger had travelled back to his home in Belgium by train, arriving around midnight on Friday. His owner then prepared food for him, but when she called him, he collapsed and started shaking, before going into a coma, then dying. She called her vet immediately, and an autopsy was carried out. It was reported that the dog’s stomach contained “cubes of meat – some sort of beef-like steak – that had been sewn up with poison inside”. At the time, the suggestion has been made that the dog had been fed the poison bait on Thursday, in a formulation designed to be released slowly. Samples were sent to the toxicology laboratory for analysis, and two poisons were identified – carbofuran and aldicarb. These are fast acting agricultural toxins, illegal in the EU, which would cause severe clinical symptoms to occur within half an hour to three hours, meaning that it was not possible that the poison bait had been eaten the previous day.

Poisoning is common in daily veterinary practice

As a vet in practice, I’ve often been called to assist in episodes of suspected malicious poisoning. There are three types of incident which fall into this category.

Unexplained sudden deaths

First, the unexplained sudden severe illness and death of a dog, where a grief-stricken owner is desperately looking for a reason for their pet’s demise, and perhaps someone to blame. There are many possible reasons for sudden death, from brain haemorrhage, to heart failure, to an acute viral infection, to an internal catastrophe such as the twisting of an abdominal organ. When an owner witnesses such a death, poison is often at the top of their personal list of likely causes, but in reality, it’s exceptionally rare. The only way that it can be ruled in or out is by carrying out a detailed autopsy, but even this is often not conclusive. Many causes of sudden death (as listed above) leave surprisingly scanty physical evidence, and it isn’t as easy as you’d think to carry out a “poison analysis” on samples from the digestive tract. Each poison needs to be searched for specifically, and there are dozens of possibilities. Each individual test costs money, so it would be easy to spend many hundreds of pounds fruitlessly checking for poisons. Many cases of sudden death remain a mystery, with no definitive answer.

Accidental poisoning

The second type of suspected malicious poisoning happens when a dog shows classical signs of poisoning rather than the vaguer signs of just “sudden severe illness then death”. Examples include neurological signs (such as staggering, fitting and collapse), digestive signs (such as vomiting and diarrhoea), respiratory signs (such as difficulty breathing) or signs linked to poor blood clotting. Sometimes a clinical work up can be fairly definitive that a poison is the cause, and an owner’s automatic response is often that it must be deliberate. In fact, most poisonings are accidental rather than planned: dogs investigate the world with their mouths. Many poisonous substances are left within a dog’s reach (e.g. rat poison, slug bait, and weedkillers) and this is the most common reason for dogs to be poisoned.

Deliberate malicious poisoning

The third type of suspected malicious poisoning is the real thing: when somebody deliberately leaves out poison bait for a dog. In thirty years of vet practice, I have only come across this on a handful of occasions. In most cases, several dogs have been affected and often the owners have actually witnessed their dogs taking the bait. In one case, the owner brought the remainder of the bait with them to the vet: it was very obviously poison mixed with meat. The signs of poisoning usually start within minutes or hours of the poison being taken. A specific poison is usually suspected from the signs shown by the dog, so only one test needs to be done in the laboratory, making it easy to have the cause proven. In most cases, there was an obvious motive for the poisoning (e.g. history of dogs chasing sheep in a rural area, complaints about dogs barking in a neighbourhood). Such cases are exceptionally rare, thank goodness.

What was the cause of Jagger’s death?

Jagger’s death definitely fits into the third category: deliberate malicious poisoning, but there is still a mystery over how exactly this happened. The timing of it – over 24 hours after leaving Crufts – means that it cannot have happened at the dog show. It seems far more likely that the dog picked up the poison bait in his home country, during the two or three hours prior to developing signs of toxicity. Was it a bait left out specifically for this dog? Or was it a bait left out for foxes in the neighbourhood that Jagger picked up by accident? Perhaps we’ll never know the final answer to this well-publicised mystery.

If your dog shows sudden signs of illness and you’re not sure what to do, use the VetHelpDirect symptom checker: the chances are that you will need to call your vet at once, but this quick-to-use guide may reassure you that you are taking the right course of action.

What NOT to feed your cat.

Gizmo eatingClients often ask me what they should feed their cats. It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is far from straight forward. The biggest debate amongst veterinarians at the moment is whether or not a cat should be fed dry food or wet food, or both. Personally, I tend to lean towards wet food as it seems to be the more natural option for a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into in this article. But I don’t necessarily recommend that to all of my clients. My own cat, for example, loves almost any dry diet but seems to hate wet food, so this is clearly not a good option for her. Being fussy creatures by nature, in most cases, the best food for your cat is the one that they will eat. But this isn’t always the case. Read on to see some examples of what NOT to feed your cat…

“I feed my cat only the finest fillet steak! Costs me a fortune, so it must be good for her, right?”

Short and long answer to that one – absolutely not. It’s true that in the world of well-balanced, scientifically formulated complete pet foods, you generally get what you pay for. More expensive foods, on the whole, tend to be of better quality than cheaper ones. But that only applies to complete, well-balanced pet foods. Just because a human food is expensive (ie, humans really like it and therefore are willing to pay a high price for it), doesn’t mean it’s going to do your cat any good at all. Sure, a bit of steak here and there isn’t going to hurt them, but by feeding your cat exclusively the muscle meat of any animal, they will quickly become deficient in a wide range of vitamins and minerals. There is, for example, very little calcium in muscle meat, to name just one. Other expensive human foods can even be dangerous for cats, even in small volumes. So if you ever feel like splashing out on your cat’s diet, put back the caviar and foie gras and ask your vet for their recommendation instead.

“But sometimes all she’ll eat are her treats, so I just give her those!”

The problem with this one is that unless your cat is extremely ill and you’re happy to get them to eat anything at all, this simply isn’t true. Cats are absolute masters when it comes to training their owners at mealtimes. And they’re not stupid. A normal, healthy cat will not starve itself. But they’ll certainly have you believe that they will. A normal cat (again, we’re not talking about sick cats here) who only eats treats, or some rubbish, unbalanced cat food, does so because their owner keeps providing it. Take it away and offer a balanced cat food, and eventually they will eat it. They may make you feel like you are the most horrible human on the planet for denying them their favourite food, but they will eat it. OK, you may have to try a few different flavours before you find one that they won’t argue about with you, but there is a good cat food out there that they will eat. And they will thank you with their good health, though not necessarily in any other way… Look at it another way, if somebody offered you a salad and a chocolate bar, you’d probably choose the chocolate bar. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t eat the salad tomorrow if that’s all there was! A word of caution though, if you try to change your cat’s diet, always do so gradually by mixing it in for a few days to avoid stomach upset. And if they really do go for more than 24-48 hours without eating their new food, speak with your vet for advice because it can be dangerous for a cat to not eat for too long and there may be an underlying medical problem that you didn’t know about.

“My cats deserve a special treat, so I give them tuna for dinner every night”

And I’m not talking about a complete and balanced tuna-flavoured cat food here, but tinned tuna for humans. In this case, it’s not the tuna itself that’s the problem (unless of course your cat is unfortunate enough to be allergic to tuna), rather the fact that it is fed as a meal every night. Too much fish can have inappropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus, and could lead to other problems like thiamine deficiency if raw fish is fed too often. There can also be low levels of toxins like mercury in some fish that won’t harm you if eaten occasionally but can build up if eaten in large quantities. It’s also worth noting that it is particularly important not to feed more than just the very occasional small treat of liver, as eating too much liver can cause serious vitamin toxicities. Like most things, moderation is key. Again, you might enjoy eating pizza for dinner every night, but it probably wouldn’t do your body any good. If you’d like to give your cats a treat, try giving them a different treat each time, provided each one is safe and not too high in fat, and give just a small amount of it, not a whole meal’s worth.

“I’m sorry, did you say crisps?”

Of course, there are some human foods that shouldn’t even be fed in moderation. You’d be amazed what some people will admit to feeding their cats as treats ‘because they really seem to like it’. Sure, your cat may love crisps, but they have absolutely no nutritional value for them (or us, really…), and are simply high in salt, fat, and carbohydrates. They may not necessarily hurt them, but they certainly don’t need them, and it’s not difficult to find them a more appropriate snack. Common human foods that probably shouldn’t be fed to cats in any quantity, no matter how much they seem to like them, include sweet or savoury biscuits, processed sandwich meat, and chips among many other things. You could also add milk and cheese to this list, although I haven’t had much luck convincing clients to give these treats up as they are used so commonly. Cats would not and probably should not naturally drink milk, and can in fact be allergic to it, it is only our domestication of them that has created this ‘need’. And then there are things like onions, chocolate, alcohol, tea, coffee, grapes and raisins that can be toxic in even small quantities so these should never be given to cats.

Daisy pinching foodWhether the problem is finding a food that your cat seems to like, your cat constantly crying out for food, or your own overwhelming desire to treat them to something you think is nice, it’s important to remember that as the carer of this domestic animal you are generally in control of your cat’s diet. If your cat is overweight, chances are you’re feeding it too much, no matter how much they tell you they’re starving. If your otherwise normal, healthy cat will only eat the most expensive smoked salmon, it’s because you offered it to them and they decided it was good enough to hold out for. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a cat that hunts you down and cries for a tasty treat even though you know they shouldn’t have it, be strong and walk away, or better yet, try some kind of distraction such as a toy or a good stroke. It’s not always food they’re crying out for, sometimes it’s the attention of being fed. But if it persists, be sure to take them to the vet for a checkup because constantly crying out for food can actually be a sign of hyperthyroidism or other serious illness.

Whatever the cause, if you find yourself with a feline feeding issue, speak with your vet because many times the solution is easier than you think. And remember, just because your cat wants it, doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest to have it!

If you are worried about any specific symptoms your cat may be showing, talk to your Vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent it may be.

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