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Vet Talk

My Neighbor Poisoned my Dog!
June 2, 2014 (published)


Of all the odd phenomena that I have witnessed in 18 years of veterinary emergency medicine, one stands out as perhaps the oddest and most annoying:  the unshakable hatred that many pet owners have for their neighbors and the willingness to blame their pet’s medical problems on them. Neighbors are a convenient scapegoat for all manner of ills – I have seen the my-neighbor-poisoned-my-pet phenomenon blamed for cancer, infection, autoimmune disease and a host of others. I have also seen a great many pets who were actually poisoned as well – but the poison was domestic, not imported and was ingested within the confines of the family home.

So what accounts for this? And does it ever happen?

To hit that last point first – yes, it does happen. It just happens with about 1/200th the frequency that people think it does. To hear some paranoid people tell it, the world is chock full of malicious neighbors wantonly spraying a panoply of toxins from giant tanks strapped to their backs as they wander the neighborhood. In truth, I have found it to be the case in only a small handful of incidents (perhaps three or four) over the years, but invoked as a cause in hundreds, if not thousands, of mysterious illnesses.

Malicious poisoning is a rare occurrence.

People loathe a mystery, and bad blood with a neighbor makes for a conveniently simple explanation when a pet becomes ill without an obvious, immediate explanation. It wraps up the story into a tidy package, and the roles of hero and victim become clearly drawn in black and white. The universe does not often give up its secrets that easily, nor do that many people stoop to the abhorrent act of poisoning an innocent animal. Again, it happens; we see stories of poisoning on the news and in social media all the time. It makes for great fodder, and gets people whipped up into the type of consumer-fear frenzy moral panic that the more salacious media organizations seem to feed off of, but it is a rarity. The ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center states that malicious poisoning accounts for only 200 cases a year in the U.S. While this is certainly significant and tragic to those 200 pets and families, it is less than 0.5% of all the calls the center receives each year.

As to why, I think it’s because people love the simplicity of the equation and it is near-impossible to completely rule out neighborly foul play (until you have a firm diagnosis that it’s something else, that is). I’m often asked “Doc, do you think my neighbor could have done it?” when dealing with a sick pet in the early stages before we have arrived at a diagnosis.

Think about that question.

It’s hard to prove a negative. In medicine, one of the worst things you can do is take something off the table prematurely when considering causes of illness. This cardinal sin of medical thinking is known as ‘premature closure of the differential list’ and it leads to tunnel vision and falling in love with the wrong diagnosis.

So neighbor as a potential cause has to be in there, along with cancer, organ failure, bacterial infection, mycotic swamp cancer and mites and viruses and all of the many things that can make a body ill.

So my answer to could the neighbor have done it, has to be yes.  Did the neighbor do it is a different matter entirely. The answer to that one is almost always in the negative.

But in order to be complete and thorough, we have to consider it. And just the fact that we are considering it tends to lend it undeserved credence in the minds of many pet owners.

How does it usually play out? 

Here’s an example pulled from real clinic files, more or less: A family brings their older German Shepherd named Bea Arthur in for an ER visit due to sudden collapse. One minute, she’s fine, barking like mad and running the fence line, the next she’s a limp heap on the kitchen floor.

In the recent past, the neighbors on the other side of that fence have been grumbling about some branches that have fallen from your tree onto their property, plus a whole bunch of dried-up apples have also fallen into their yard, and they don’t like the fact that the apples look like little scrunchy faces and it’s totally creeping them out and for some mysterious reason most of the faces look like the Golden Girls.

When Bea arrives at the ER, she’s in shock and the initial exam reveals an abdomen full of blood (a condition known as a hemoabdomen). When going over the possible causes of a belly full of blood, poisoning comes up, and sure as clockwork the question pops out of the owner’s mouth: “Doc, do you think those Golden-Girl-hating neighbors could have poisoned her?”

How would you respond to this? While it is surely within the realm of possibility, and the neighbors are proven Bea Arthur hatas, it’s the least likely cause on the list.

A little veterinary schooling and erudite investigation soon provides the true cause, and the neighbors are off the hook. If she was poisoned, it would have been with common rat poison, which causes bleeding, and Bea’s blood clotting times are normal. After some X-rays and an ultrasound, the news is not good: Bea has a cantaloupe-sized cancerous mass on her spleen that has ruptured and is bleeding. Hemangiosarcoma – 1; neighbors – 0.

Owners often want a panel of tests to determine just which toxin is killing their pet, and, sadly, there is no readily available, easily accessible and affordable test or suite of tests that can do this. This is another case of just too much TV in peoples' lives, as in the world of House MD and (for those of us with a touch of gray) Quincy, you just sent off a sample of blood, nails or hair and, as if by magic, a neatly printed report would squeeze out of the fax in about 15 minutes delineating just what exotic poison was laced in the snicker-doodles by the malicious old lady (SPOILER: It was arsenic).

You have to test for each individual poison one by one, a laborious and expensive process. Human pathology and toxicology labs may bundle these tests into sets for clinical use in people, but this is one area where pets get short shrift.

What’s more likely?

Common things happen commonly. Truly evil people are a rarity, and (perhaps luckily) most humans are lazy and would rather complain about a dog barking, maybe even threaten some vile action, than actually carry it out. So if you have the bad luck to have a pet with a mystery illness, put something bad perpetrated by a neighbor way, way down the list. Things like garden variety infections, the normal bumps and scrapes of everyday existence, even cancer are far more likely to be the cause of your pet’s woes than the loonies next door.

16 Comments

mak
September 12, 2017

We did a lot of 4-H and lived in small town (under 1000 pop.) With an acre lot, with sheds and fences. Growing up, our neighbor shot one of our dogs, poisoned countless dogs and cats in neighborhood,including another of our dogs and one of his own. Our family vet and friend removed his stomach during autopsy, had it screeed at U of M and found sticnine. By the time they got back it had snowed and the dog tracks and human tracks that showed th dog had been enticed to follow fence line and just inside his yard. Because this evidence was lost, sheriff could not prosecute. Then i had problems with a neighbor,when we bought a lrge property with a barn and out buildings. (Again same town and 4-H),I cannot prove which one but in a matter of months our rabbits who lived in a shed were killed between night feeding and morning. Food was good as we shared with my brother from same bag, water dishes washed with soap and water, poison was suspected not proven. Then our cat survived a point blank shot from a pellet gun. It went through the front of chest, deflected off of ribs and out the other side near stomach. Then a 3yo goat died overnight. No autopsy.Then our 3yo german shepard dropped dead. We couldn't afford vet care at that moment of our family. So yes there are more poisonings then reported. More evil people then I was willing to accept. One growing up was enough. I thought people were generally good. I no longer trust that line of thinking. More vets need to stop using stats and realize not everyone takes critters to vet. There are many of us who  know simple vetting from yrs with the farm and 4-H.


Jacqueline Turner
September 12, 2017

My dog was the picture of health. Never had a single health problem. A beautiful mini pinscher. Only 7 yrs old. 6 months ago, he had a rabies shot- his first since he was a baby. His health went into rapid decline. Blood ppanel showed nothing. He died this morning. Looked to be a wasting disease, poison or cancer. He never ate or drank in the last stages and could barely stand up. He had wasted away to skin and bones. Yes, my neighbours had complained three times about barking. Perhaps they gave him something cumulative over time to poison. Or it was the rabies shot that did it.


PugUgly
September 8, 2017

Dog started getting ill may have eaten poisoned apples. Vet could find nothing


Sue
August 14, 2017

My daughter just walked outside to find two of her 3 month old lab pups dead at same time and day healthy pups playing and eating then dead whast could of done this there neibors are after them all the time the sasme day pupds died there adult son was at there house said he was getting his stuff close to dog kennels can everyone leave commit on what u think happened


Amy
April 27, 2017

My neighbor (from another country) thought they were doing something nice by throwing their left over cooked chicken bones over my fence.  I didn't know they were doing this until it was too late.  My little dog died a slow and painful death, throwing up, bloody diarrhea and, in effect, he starved to death because he was eating and eating but loosing weight. Over a 6 month period he became amaciated although he was desperately hungry. Evidently, he had internal punctures.  He would shake in pain every time he ate, but he was so hungry. I spent so much money trying to find out what was wrong with him...x rays, ultra sound, blood tests.  We could not figure it out, other than the fact that his digestive tract was inflamed. We tried medication after medication, and they only had little benefit. Once I discovered the evidence and found the problem (2 days after I finally was forced to put my dog to sleep), the Vet said that the chicken bones explained everything. I caught my other dog walking around carrying a full cooked chicken carcuss later (took it away from him).  Now he is beginning to show the same symptoms my other dog showed.  My neighbors just don't get it, that cooked chicken bones are deadly to dogs!  They also don't get respecting someone else's property.  English is not their first language so it is difficult communicating.  I don't know what to do, though, to keep them from doing it. I have a 6 foot privacy fence, which we share between our 2 yards. They can easily throw over a 6 foot structure. My dog is mainly indoors, but he goes outside (dog door) to poo.  I have been escorting him and watching him when he goes.  But when I am not home, he might be going out there and eating something left for him.    I think the writer of this article is too gullible thinking that neighbors, or people in general, are highly unlikely to poison or harm another person's animal.  Unfortunately, I think it happens a lot more than we realize.


Mona Lisa o
March 26, 2017

I was listening to talk radio about 10 years ago, and was shocked to hear the host of a radio talk show respond to a caller who asked what he should do about an annoying barking neighbor's dog. I wish I could remember the host's name, but the host told this caller to NOT complain to the neighbor, but to poison the dog (secretly of course). If he complained first, the neighbor would have a clue that he was the one who poisoned the dog... The poor caller said it was a very cute expensive looking dog, and the host just said, doesn't matter, the best way was to kill it. I really couldn't believe my ears. Does anyone remember hearing such a story on the radio? I think I know who it was, but afraid to blame the wrong person, since I don't really know for sure. Maybe they got a lot of hate mail afterwards and changed, I don't know. I started realizing talk radio is mostly to shock people into listening, but made me sick.


Laura
November 22, 2016

My dog died on US Labor Day.  I was doing yard work and came inside for some water.  He was laying in his favorite spot on the tile.  As I stepped over him, I realized I had to take a much larger area than usual.  He had a large pool of blood next to his head.  He was panting blood bubbles. I got him to my vet immediately and he took his agonal breath in the back seat of my truck as the vet had hopped in to listen to him with her stethoscope.   A few days prior to that was my neighbors' first call to the Sheriffs dept.  I was out to dinner and I guess they were barking (11:00 pm on a Friday night).  The next day, I smelled skunk everywhere.  Regardless, I was in such shock, it didn't occur to me that he may have been poisoned.  I have two other dogs that are healthy now, but since these two have been called in once, it dawned on me that there might be some people who could be putting them at risk.  I have always put my pets to sleep, not just watch them expire in a puddle of blood while safely laying in the home.  I have an 8 ft. privacy fence and my dogs are never loose, nor have access to any poisons on my property.  Is there a poison that could cause such acute GI bleeding/vommitting?  Is there a natural cause that would be so acute?


Homer Champagne
September 22, 2016

I suspect my neighbor poisoned my dog with a type of rat poison that there is no treatment for. Does the 4page blood test show the poisons effect. The individual has been complaining about dogs barking since 2002. He has been accused of doctoring dog buscuits in 2005, and dogs have been put down under his request claiming dangerous after he was witnessed hitting a cocker spaniel  with a board and nail. I feel dogs are still at risk in this neighborhood, and I'm not even hitting on the no cats stay around for very long. I was run out of the county by the sherrifs as they protect this old Navy vet.


JUNE
January 27, 2016

I find it hard to believe how silly you are.  People ARE evil and are not rare.  My neighbor admitted to poisoning both of my chihuahua puppies and I feel sure she has done it before.


Ron S
November 1, 2015

Malicious poisoning a rare occurrence? My neighbor poisoned our dog while having coffee with us in our kitchen! She put D-con rat poison in her water bowl. Did we see her do it? I'm always on the lookout for such an occurrence... aren't you? Our Sandy died 7 1/2 hours after our neighbor left. Proof? We cannot afford $1100 dollars to have her cremains tested for D-con and yes I've looked into it. The police cannot prosecute without this evidence.


Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
August 7, 2015

Hi Jennifer, Unfortunately, if there was a toxin involved, there's just no way to tell what it might have been based on the information you've given.  I'm glad to hear that there will be a necropsy--that's the best way to find an answer, if it can be found.  Sometimes we never figure it out, and that is both heartbreaking and frustrating.  I'm very sorry for your loss.


Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
August 7, 2015

Hi MIchael, I'm sorry to hear that this happened.  Since you are actually working with a veterinarian, that is the person I would talk to about what may have happened--that person is the one who actually saw your dog and is in the best position to figure out what happened.  Sometimes a necropsy (autopsy) will give more information--but sometimes not.  I'm sorry that I can't be of more help.


Jennifer
August 6, 2015

What are the signs? My Kiki was the picture of health but annoyed guy next door. Kiki ran upstairs, jump into my arms, screaming, and died. She smelled like alfredo sauce (we didn't have) The necropsy is pending.


Michaelq
August 5, 2015

My dog died of poison recently. on Monday morning I fed her ,she was absolutely fine.  running , eat like a dog. at evening around 7,  I gave her a bone, she did not show any interest.  I found something wrong,   she looked weak. she still walked.  Next morning,  she could not lift her head. she is 50lbs. she had seizures. we sent her to vet clinic,  she was diagnosed with nerve toxin poisoned and she died. only about 24 hrs. i could not think who could do this. any suggestion .


Megan 
April 28, 2015

This morning I stopped my dog on her way into the house because she had something in her mouth and I found it was a wad of raw ground beef mixed with green pellets. Took her to the vet where he induced vomiting and found her stomach to be full of meat and rat poison. She's not an outside dog, goes out only to potty, and is well behaved. There are people who will do this sort of thing and for no reason (not that a barking dog would be a good reason either; there is no good reason). The vet has saved the pellets for testing to narrow down what sort of rat poison was used and animal control is investigating. Probably all for naught though. I've never had issues with any neighbors so I couldn't begin to guess who might do this.


Christina 
June 10, 2014

My dog died from poison.


 


 
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