Malicious poisoning accounts for only 200 cases a year in the U.S.
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.
August 23, 2020
Karen Leigh Sanders
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Mona Lisa o
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Wendy Smith Wilson, DVM
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.