Over the July 4th weekend I saw a sickening post on Facebook. In the San Francisco area there were reports of meatballs containing strychnine being left along sidewalks and these were poisoning dogs. Even the best trained dogs can hardly resist a meatball, strychnine or not. The situation quickly brought me back to 2003 when the Portland dog community, and DoveLewis, suffered through a similar tragedy.
It was July 4th weekend. A couple of days previous we started seeing patients with an odd but similar assortment of clinical signs. They all started with relatively mild GI issues and most were treated by their general practice with outpatient treatments (SQ fluids, famotidine, etc). A few had some elevated lipase readings, but nothing too dramatic. When they failed to bounce back they came to DoveLewis with oral and esophageal ulcers, some of them with elevated renal values, and all of them with dyspnea. Our very astute team of doctors quickly put together that all of these dogs lived close to each other, and all of them had a history of visiting a popular park in the area. Some were seen eating something that resembled sausage in that park. We feared a malicious poisoning situation, and we were right.
Portland is nothing if not dog-friendly. We often rank high on lists of top dog cities in the US due to the numerous hiking trails, proximity to mountains and public beaches, and a wealth of fenced-in off-leash dog parks. This particular park where the affected dogs had visited is HUGE but there was no designated off-leash area. There were some rumblings about off-leash dogs being there and apparently someone decided to take matters into their own hands.
Putting the symptom puzzle together (later confirmed by frozen sample CSI level testing) we knew that we were dealing with paraquat toxicity. Paraquat is a nasty, nasty pesticide that's so toxic it requires a license to purchase. It does a number on those who ingest it. Starting with oral and esophageal ulcers it soon, through oxidative damage, causes ARDS, mediastinal swelling, and death from asphyxiation. The key to treatment is catching it early, but in most cases nothing can reverse the symptoms and death occurs at a high rate. It’s horrible. Someone was intentionally killing dogs in Portland and DoveLewis was in the center of the nightmare.
At one point we had as many as six dogs, at the same time, in the hospital dying of paraquat toxicity. All of them critically ill, oxygen-dependent, awesome sweet beautiful dogs dying in front of our eyes. The owners were aware of what was happening, they knew when another dog died or was euthanized, they knew that we were losing the battle but still wanted to give their dog every chance they could. As a staff we cried along with them when another dog passed away. I was working overnights at the time and remember waking up in the middle of the day and having the need to call the hospital to check on these dogs, hoping that we had made a breakthrough and one of them was improving. It never happened.
As a technician staff we relied heavily on each other for support through this. We were all experiencing the same anger, helplessness, frustration and extreme sadness over the situation. But we all needed to have compassion for our patients, their owners, and each other. We needed to be able to continue working on all of the other patients during our busiest time of the year. Like we always do, we somehow made it through, although DoveLewis lost every single paraquat dog that we treated. Only one confirmed poisoning case survived.
We had a memorial for the community at a local brewery (aptly titled The Lucky Lab) and we grieved together as a community. Enid Traisman (our Pet Loss Support Program Director) made a memorial mosaic that is still hanging outside of the brewery (see below). The owners I remember from late nights in the hospital came out to thank the hospital and the city for support. But I don’t think any of us really healed from the event.
I still choke up thinking about it, and wonder where we all got the reserve to keep going in the middle of it. That’s what I love about my job and those who work so hard in animal hospitals. We just keep going. Sometimes I just wish the outcome was happier.