Sara is a beautiful, 4-year-old Boykin spaniel. Normally the picture of health and vitality, Sara was now in serious trouble.

She arrived at the emergency clinic having seizures, a fever of 108 degrees and spasmodic contractions in all four legs. Between seizures, she wass lying on her side, panting and salivating profusely. Her eyes were staring with a mix of excitement and incoherence. Her facial muscles were so tight that it looked as though someone was pulling her skin toward the back of her head.

When the owners left for work everything was fine. They returned home to find her like that. The initial treatment was directed at her clinical signs. Anti-convulsant medications were administered, and an IV fluid line was established. Her extremities were soaked with water to try and cool her. Blood was drawn and analyzed.

As all of this was happening in the treatment area, the panic-stricken owners were being carefully questioned in an attempt to pinpoint a cause. We learned that Sara is an indoor dog, with a dog door providing access to the yard. It was a warm day, but she would have only been in and out, and not likely to exercise much by herself. She had no history of seizures; in fact she had no history of ever having so much as diarrhea in the years they have owned her.

Having such a clean health history, and no telltale clues in the blood work, our primary suspicion was that Sara had been exposed to a toxin. There are many toxins to which a dog or cat may be exposed and which cause similar symptoms, and survival can hinge upon the correct therapy being administered early. For this to happen, the offending compound must be quickly identified.

Often, routine lab testing will not yield an answer, so we depend upon a thorough history from the owners, complete with a description of their pet’s home environment, roaming habits, and any possible toxins they may encounter. These can include rodent poisons, pesticides, insecticides, antifreeze, legal and illegal drugs, plants and even chewing gum. Although symptoms of various toxins may be similar, their treatments can vary widely.

In Sara’s case, the family had no ideas. They had no problem with rats or mice, no drugs to speak of, and no toxic plants. She was in the house and the back yard. There was, in their estimation, zero chance of her being poisoned. That was until an observant technician made a passing comment about the dirt under her nails and on her paws. “Does she like to dig?” she asked. The owner replied that she didn’t used to, but explained that she went crazy for the moles in the yard.

A light went on in the clinician’s mind. “Do you do anything to get rid of them?” she asked. The owner paused as she, too, realized that this might be the answer. “No, but we have a lawn service, and they may have.” A phone call was made, and the answer was provided. The landscaper had put a “small amount” of mole bait out. It was buried in the ground and is shaped like worms. Bingo: bromethalin poisoning.

Bromethalin is a dangerous neurotoxin used in rat and mouse baits in the form of blocks, pellets, seeds and, when used to kill moles, worms. Bromethalin disrupts the lining of neurons, and acts quickly, generally four to 36 hours. It causes fluid to develop in the neurons and can cause severe brain swelling and edema. Outward signs are tremors, hyper-excitability, seizures, coma and death. At lower dosages, signs take longer to develop and are generally of a more depressed form, manifesting weakness, mental depression, tremors, weakness, etc.

Whether the active ingredient is bromethalin or another compound, rodent poisons are meant to wreak fatal havoc upon mammalian systems, and they don’t differentiate between dogs, cats, mice, moles or rats. Keeping, or using these types of products in spaces occupied by your pets, is simply negligent. Additionally, these toxins impose an inhumanely cruel death to their intended targets, and pose a risk to children and wildlife. More than 10,000 kids are exposed to them in the United States annually, and according to poison control centers, almost all are under the age of 3. Wildlife exposure ranges from owls and hawks to foxes and bobcats, and the fatalities among these animals are in the thousands every year, in every state.

In my (Henri Bianucci) book, the cruel trauma suffered by Sara and many dogs like her, not to mention collateral wildlife and children, is almost completely avoidable. To impose that kind of suffering on any animal, including a rat, is not only inhumane, but in many cases, it’s unnecessary.

Lawns don’t have to be perfect, and good sanitation and exclusion methods are far safer and greener approaches. For moles, often controlling the grub population, their favorite food, is a safer alternative. We see these exposures all the time, and the results are often heartbreaking. To keep your pets safe, know the risks, take precautions, and use alternative methods of pest control when possible.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to

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