COVER- Dog, gone: How poison killed his pet
First there was one mouse, then another. Before long, Ande Schneider, a longtime vegetarian and animal lover, found herself purchasing humane traps and taking the captured critters outside. But after 25 such trips outdoors, she began wearying– and wondering if such a serious rodent infestation might pose a health risk to her four young children.
"I decided," she says, "it might be beyond my ability."
Hoping to have the situation handled safely, she decided to call the green-sounding company her landlord recommended. Before long, all the mice were dead. But, unfortunately, so was the family dog.
This is what happened.
What's in a name?
There are at least 15 pest control businesses in the Charlottesville area telephone directories. Some have lethal sounding names like Terminix; others describe the service as pest "extermination." That they bring death to critters is no secret. In fact, it seems a point of pride.
Holistic Pest Solutions, however, gives off another vibe. In its full-page phone book ad, Holistic calls itself "green from the start" and gives chemical-nervous households a promise: "The first tool off our truck is a flashlight... not a spray can."
Schneider says she was relieved to have such a high-minded option, but when Holistic co-owner Ty Ashcraft arrived at her house and assessed the extent of the mouse problem, he didn't have any magic wands or herbal tricks. Instead, he suggested placing what he called "bait" throughout the house where mice had been seen and below the house in the crawlspace. It's a standard pest-control procedure, but it didn't turn out the way they planned.
Despite Schneider's concerns about using poison in her home, Schneider allowed Ashcraft to place black plastic traps in a few cabinets and under the stove– places no child or animal could reach. They discussed keeping children and animals away and secured the cabinet doors. Ashcraft next went under the house to place more bait. Schneider says she didn't understand that the bait he'd placed in the crawlspace wasn't contained in the black plastic traps– nor did she fully understand what he meant by "bait."
"I knew it wouldn't be good for [the mice]," she says, "but I really didn't know how it worked."
Indeed, those in the pesticide industry know that "bait" is synonymous with deadly poison, but to the consumer, the word might sound a lot gentler than, say, "hemorrhagic death agent."
Winter arrived early with the epic December 18 snowfall followed by several subsequent storms, and the ground– as well as Schneider's north-facing crawlspace door– were blanketed by snow for much of the next two months. Thoughts of mice and poison were far from her mind until the dog got sick.
When Schneider went to the Fluvanna County SPCA two years ago, she knew she'd be coming home with a puppy as a sixth birthday present for her oldest son, Julian. But she didn't know just how much she and the whole family would bond with the dog, an 8-week-old shepherd-collie mix who soon showed loyalty and intelligence beyond what they had experienced with other pets.
"She was just like one of the kids," says Schneider. "She went everywhere with us."
Indeed, family photos show Sierra at the beach, Sierra hiking, Sierra on picnics, Sierra licking a beater after a cooking project, even a picture of Sierra sneaking up on a table to reach goodies on a highchair.
The dog became a fixture on walking trips to the Crozet Harris-Teeter, where she'd obediently wait outside for Schneider's boyfriend, Stein Kretsinger, father of her two younger children, while he shopped inside.
But while Sierra was normally a bundle of energy, eager to play with her family– including the four boys ages 5 months to 8 years– the two-year-old dog seemed tired on the morning of Monday, March 8.
"She was really lethargic, laying around," says Schneider.
By the next day, Sierra hadn't improved, so the couple took her to a veterinarian to have her checked, even though they weren't yet too worried.
"She wasn't acting horribly sick to the untrained eye," Kretsinger recalls, "especially if you didn't know how sparkly and energetic she normally was."
The vet, Dr. Brad DiCarlo, took the animal's vital signs, checked her eyes and ears, then took a stool sample. He noticed it contained a green, waxy substance– one of the warning signs of rat poison ingestion.
Sold under brand names including Contrac and D-Con, rat poison can comprise a variety of agents that kill in different ways, but the most common form of rodenticide works as an anti-coagulant, preventing blood from clotting and causing the animal ingesting it to hemorrhage internally. The effects are delayed, often taking two or three days to kick in, so that targeted rodents won't associate the food with illness and will continue to consume the fatal potion.
Rodenticide can be embedded inside a black plastic "bait trap," a closed container the animal must enter to access the sweetly flavored poison, typically blue or green pellets, or inside of relatively tough plastic wrapping, too difficult for a young child to open, but through which a hungry animal can easily chew.
While Kretsinger and Schneider were aware that Holistic's Ashcraft had put out the black plastic bait traps in the house back in the fall, and that those traps contained poison, they also knew that they had been deliberately placed in locations where neither Sierra nor the children– one of them at that time an eat-everything 14-month-old– could reach them, and, Schneider says, they believed he'd retrieved them all from the house months before. So Kretsinger told the vet he thought it doubtful Sierra could have encountered poison and says that the vet– noting Sierra's still relatively healthy appearance– agreed it seemed unlikely.
"She's doing too well for it to be rat poison," Kretsinger recalls the vet saying.
Signs of poisoning, he told Kretsinger, were bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, gums or rectum, or excessively labored breathing– a sign that the dog's lungs were filling with blood.
The vet suggested Sierra might have eaten a candle or a green crayon and sent her home, cautioning her owners to keep an eye on her in case her condition worsened.
Reactions to rodents range. Some people shriek at the sight of a scurrying animal with a long hairless tail; others aren't bothered by the occasional mouse or rat and simply choose to ignore it or sweep it out with a broom.
For the phobic or fearless, however, an indoor infestation can become a serious problem, say health experts, due to various bacterial and viral infections that can be transmitted from rodents to human housemates.
Among these are hantavirus, a potentially fatal virus spread when humans breathe air contaminated with mouse urine, droppings, or saliva. Another rodent-carried virus, known as LCMV, can lead to meningitis and cause serious birth defects in a fetus exposed during the first or second trimester.
Infestations in urban areas can be particularly difficult to manage, as officials in New York City recently discovered when a KFC/Taco Bell overrun with rats caused a public relations nightmare that ended only when officials hired a Ph.D. in rodentology for more than $100,000 a year to help train their own health department workers.
While rodent attacks are extremely uncommon, they can be devastating. In July 2009, a three-month-old baby girl in Louisaiana was bitten to death in her crib by rats. A medical examiner ruled she bled to death after suffering more than 100 bites. And in February 2007 in Ohio, a rat mauled a premature baby sleeping in her bassinet. Investigators, who found rat droppings nearby, believe the rodent was attracted by the scent of milk around her mouth.
Even a single rat bite can be serious, as the animal can carry bacteria that leads to "rat bite fever," an ailment that brings fever, rash, and– in the most severe cases– death.
Rodents can also indirectly cause fatal mayhem by chewing through wiring in the walls, leading to house fires. Statistics posted on the Illinois Health Department website suggest that as many as 25 percent of fires with an unknown cause were actually sparked by rodent activity.
If rodents are a serious problem, getting rid of them can become a serious effort. Balancing the health of a family with the desire to treat animals humanely is even trickier– as Sierra's family would learn the hard way.
For residential clients, Holistic Pet Solutions promises the "safest pest techniques available" and "less chemistry in your breathing environment." But as co-owner Ty Ashcraft explains, the word "holistic" does not necessarily mean chemical-free or poison-free. Instead, it represents a "whole" approach to pest control that focuses first on prevention and non-toxic deterrents, and, as a last resort, standard chemical treatments including rodenticide.
For instance, Ashcraft says, he will seal up holes where mice can enter and counsel families on how to cut down on food sources to make the house less attractive for pests. But if there's already an infestation, he says, preventive measures are too late.
"I glean no enjoyment from killing something," says Ashcraft. "But I see the necessary function."
Although she didn't understand the mechanism of the poison placed by Holistic, Schneider says, the mice were gone within a month, and she says the bait traps in the house were removed by Ashcraft, whom she assumed had also removed the bait in the crawlspace.
Veterinarians say Schneider isn't the only person who's been confused by the word "bait," a common bit of terminology in the pest control industry.
"I think they should use the words 'very potent poison'," says Dr. Nigel Bray, owner of the Animal Medical Center on Pantops, where Sierra would spend some of her final hours. "Everyone would understand that."
Packet after packet
Back at home, Sierra remained lethargic but showed none of the serious signs the vet described, Kretsinger says. That day, however, Kretsinger left work early and was out in the yard around 3pm when he made a chilling discovery.
"I saw a bag," he recalls. "I picked it up and saw it was rat poison."
He saw another, then another. Nine in all– each packet about 4 by 5 inches– with most of the poison missing.
He raced to call the vet and immediately drove Sierra back to Pantops, where the vet gave the dog an injection of Vitamin K– which restores the blood's ability to clot and can save an animal's life if given soon enough after ingestion.
"He said he thought she'd have a fine recovery," says Kretsinger, who, now armed with Vitamin K pills, once again took Sierra home to watch and wait.
When the couple got back from their second visit to the vet's office on March 9, where Sierra received what they believed would be the life-saving Vitamin K injection, they kept an eye on their ailing dog. The vet had suggested boarding her overnight, but the couple, believing Sierra would be more comfortable at home, declined and said they'd watch her themselves.
They saw none of the most serious warning signs of rodenticide poisoning, and the next morning, March 10, Sierra still seemed okay– if lethargic. She crawled under the porch of the house, Kretsinger says, where she remained for much of the day. Schneider says she periodically checked the dog and believed she seemed well enough that they even decided to hold off on the follow-up vet's visit scheduled that afternoon and to bring her in the morning.
Sierra wouldn't make it to morning.
By midnight, Kretsinger says, the dog's breathing grew more labored. Concerned, Schneider decided to take her to a 24-hour animal hospital in Earlysville, Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service and Specialty. Concern turned to panic on the ride north along U.S. 29 as Sierra's suffering became obvious.
"She peed everywhere and let out this horrible scream," says Schneider, choking up at the memory. "I was running every red light."
According to Virginia Tech veterinary toxicologist Dennis Blodgett, the late stages of rodenticide poisoning can be painful, depending on the location of the internal bleed. And when an animal hemorrhages into its lungs, he says, pain is compounded by the panic of being unable to breathe. Sierra, he says, "was probably very anxious because she couldn't oxygenate her tissues."
In other words, she was drowning.
When Schneider arrived at the clinic on Airport Road, she'd called ahead so the on duty vet was ready to immediately take x-rays of Sierra's lungs.
"They were 80 percent filled with blood," says Schneider, who says the vet gave Sierra just a 30 percent chance of survival.
Because Sierra had already lost so much blood, the vet decided to attempt a dog-to-dog transfusion. While in humans, blood is matched by type and extensively screened, for a first-time transfusion, dogs can receive any other dog's blood directly, says Dr. Bray. Although it was well past midnight, the emergency vet called an off-duty colleague and asked her to bring in her own dog to supply the blood.
But as they waited for the donor dog to arrive, Sierra stopped panting. And then she stopped moving.
"As they got there," a tearful Schneider recalls, "Sierra died."
An inhumane way?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 15,000 children accidentally ingest rodenticides each year. And Virginia Tech's Blodgett says thousands of domestic pets are also accidentally poisoned, although exact figures aren't available. While the vast majority of these incidents aren't fatal for children or pets, new regulations aim to reduce such exposures.
In January 2007, the Agency established a series of new guidelines, which– in addition to requiring stricter labeling– requires that over-the-counter residential rat poison can now be sold only in tamper-resistant bait stations, as opposed to in the past when loose pellets could be purchased. According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency is currently investigating further restrictions of the poison for consumers– but not for pest control operators.
Poison is an "important tool" for pest control, says Agency spokesperson Dale Kemery in an email.
Naturalist Marlene Condon, however, believes anticoagulant rodenticide should be banned outright for residential or commercial use.
"It's a horribly inhumane way to kill an animal," says Condon, calling death by anticoagulant "an excruciating death."
Condon says that in many cases, the problem lies in considering rodents to be pests in need of exterminating in the first place.
"They are fulfilling a lot of different functions," she says. "They help to spread plants, and when they feed on seeds, they help to limit plants." In addition, she notes, "they're an extremely important food source to many animals," including birds of prey and foxes.
"That's the reason they have the ability to reproduce rapidly," she says. "If they didn't, they'd go extinct." She adds that when such predators eat the poisoned mice or rats, they are also sickened by their toxic prey.
Human disdain for one of rodents' main outdoor predators is another factor that's allowing their populations to skyrocket, she says.
"If you have an overabundance of rats or mice, usually it's because people kill their snakes," says Condon, noting that, unlike fox or hawks, the snake is only animal that has the right anatomy to invade a rodent's burrow.
Holistic's Ashcraft, however, disagrees that snakes can serve as a viable solution to most rodent infestations.
"They don't eat that many mice," says Ashcraft, scoffing at the notion that customers would appreciate him showing up to their house with a bag of wriggling serpents for pest control– particularly indoors.
"You find me the homeowner," he says, "who will let that happen."
Ashcraft also decries many animal-lovers' method of mouse control– of trapping them and taking them outside– as actually being the "most inhumane" method.
"You're taking a social creature that's mostly blind– they can see maybe a foot– and dropping him in what is akin to the middle of the Amazon," he says, explaining that mice and rats maintain "mental maps" of their territory, their nest, and their hoarded food. In a new and strange environment, he says, a released mouse is easy prey, and if the released rodent doesn't get eaten, "he'll die of hypothermia or starve."
Condon and Ashcraft agree on one thing: that old-fashioned snap-traps are the most humane way to kill a rodent because death, in most cases, should be instant. But while Condon urges that method as the only acceptable way to cope with an out-of-control indoor mouse infestation, Ashcraft says that, as with using snakes, most homeowners aren't willing to deal with it. A typical infested crawl space, he says, might require 50 to 75 snap traps to control the population.
To reset traps and discard carcasses, he says, "you'd have to be going under there every day."
The limitations of snap traps, Ashcraft says, leaves rodenticide as the only remaining alternative to cope with an out-of-control rodent infestation, and he says in his 16 years in the pest control industry, he'd never before had an accidental poisoning of animal or child.
Where and how he placed the bags of poison at Schneider and Kretsinger's house should have been safe, too, he says. But somehow the crawl space door came open.
A mystery and many mistakes
As Kretsinger and Schneider grieved for Sierra, they questioned how the dog could have gained access to a place that should have been inaccessible. The crawl space door– a piece of plywood on hinges– has a latch, Kretsinger says, that requires a hammer to open or close. Neither he nor Schneider had had reason to open it, and they believe Ashcraft forgot to close it when he last visited the home in the fall. Ashcraft denies this is possible.
"I say it day in and day out," he says, "telling people to make sure the crawl space is locked and closed."
Having visited their house on numerous occasions, he says, he knows exactly how the crawlspace door is opened and how it is locked– and says he remembers firmly shutting and locking it on his last visit.
Since the house has been on the market, Ashcraft wonders if a potential buyer or realtor could have opened it, then forgotten or been unable to relock the tricky latch. Landlord David Wildman, however, says the realtor knows of no home viewings between the time of Ashcraft's last visit and Sierra's poisoning.
Ashcraft also believes the crawlspace door can swell or shrink with the weather, and he suggests the severe winter weather might have contributed to its coming unlatched and allowing Sierra access, a possibility that Schneider and Kretsinger doubt.
However it happened, Ashcraft concedes that the end result was a tragedy.
"I'm sorry for their loss," he says; "I can't express that enough."
Schneider and Kretsinger, however, say he has never offered them condolences.
Both Schneider and Kretsinger also wish the vet had begun treatment with Vitamin K during their first visit– hours before Kretsinger discovered the poison.
"It only costs like $10," Kretsinger notes, "and if there was any possibility that it was rat poison, I don't know why he wouldn't have done that."
Dr. DiCarlo did not return the Hook's call, but according to his employer, Animal Medical Center owner Dr. Bray, DiCarlo did everything right. "We rely on owners to give a history," he says. "Dogs can't tell us they've eaten something funny."
Looking at DiCarlo's notes, Bray also says Schneider and Kretsinger didn't follow DiCarlo's advice to board Sierra overnight after the poisoning. Kretsinger says DiCarlo agreed that as long as they were watching her for problems, she would still be fine. "If I'd understood the urgency," Kretsinger says, "I would never have taken her home."
While the couple has expressed frustration with both Holistic Pest Control and Sierra's veterinary treatment, they don't hold themselves blame-free either, wishing they'd pursued more aggressive treatment.
"I have a lot of guilt," says Schneider. "I feel like I let this innocent life down."
As much as she's devastated by Sierra's death, Schneider says it chills her further to consider the possibility that one of her children could have eaten the poison.
"It was scattered all over the yard where they play," she says, noting that it smelled sweet and looked like "blueish rice crispies" or candy and would have been very attractive to her toddler.
A month after the family buried Sierra, Schneider says the loss of "the best dog you could imagine" has only one silver lining: her healthy now 19-month-old, Bodhi, who could have been the victim.
"Maybe Sierra had to die to save Bodhi's life," she says. "We wouldn't have gone looking for all this poison, and he could have easily gotten into it."
And she hopes Bodhi won't be the only child or animal Sierra ends up saving.
"If telling this story could save a life," she says, "it's worth it."
Sierra, pictured here with Bodhi, was "so great with the kids, always patient," says Schneider.
PHOTO COURTESY SCHNEIDER/KRETSINGER FAMILY
A gift for Schneider's oldest son Julian's sixth birthday, the 40-pound shepherd mix was a constant companion to Schneider's older three boys, Julian, 8, Sammy, 6, and 19-month old Bodhi.
PHOTO COURTESY SCHNEIDER/KRETSINGER FAMILY
Stein Kretsinger and Julian dig Sierra's grave.
PHOTO COURTESY SCHNEIDER/KRETSINGER FAMILY
"He didn't understand what was happening," Schneider says of her third child, Bodhi.
PHOTO COURTESY SCHNEIDER/KRETSINGER FAMILY
In all, the family found nine open packets of rat poison scattered around the yard.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
The crawlspace door, normally locked tight, was somehow unlatched, and Schneider shudders at the thought that her toddler son, Bodhi, pictured here with big brother Julian, could have accessed the poison.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO