Two dogs in the rural countryside of Upper Crabtree in Haywood County died from antifreeze poisoning last week, a tragic fate that has left the dog owners wondering whether it was an accident or malicious deed.
Pat and Stone Reuning and their 4-year-old son woke up on Christmas morning to find their dog Badger staggering and throwing up profusely. The progression of symptoms was rapid and alarming. Pat had to make lots of noise inside so her son couldn't hear Badger having seizures in their backyard, and by the afternoon the dog was clearly in such agony that Stone shot it.
Their neighbor's dog, Abraham, started to show the same signs the next day, and his owner Ryan Sutton rushed him to the vet.
Unfortunately, it was too late. Antifreeze poisoning has to be caught within four to five hours after it is swallowed for treatment to save the animal's life, said Dr. Kristen Hammett, the owner and senior veterinarian of Waynesville Animal Hospital.
As soon as they got home, Sutton's wife typed up a flyer about the antifreeze poisoning and set out on a mission, hoping whoever had left antifreeze out would put it up and everyone with dogs — which is just about everyone in Upper Crabtree — would keep them close.
"She went to every neighbor in our immediate area," Sutton said.
Sutton called one neighbor who he knew "does a lot of mechanicing" and asked if he'd possibly left out used antifreeze.
"He said he knows better," Sutton said. "It is so well known that it is toxic, not just to dogs but to little kids, too."
That's what makes Sutton and the Reuning's so suspicious of the antifreeze poisoning.
"At first, I thought it was an accident. I really did," Pat said. But now she's not so sure. "Someone has been out here poisoning dogs — that's what we think," she said.
Badger and Abraham went everywhere together, whether loafing at each other's house or adventuring about. They mostly roamed on the Sutton's 150 acres but occasionally would stray. Dog owners are supposed to keep their dogs on their own property, according to Haywood County's animal laws. But, it's almost a given that in rural areas like Upper Crabtree, dogs can be found wandering.
"People used to let their dogs roam in this community, or at least they used to," Pat Reuning said.
"I growed up in Crabtree, and that's the way most people did," Sutton added.
Abraham is the second dog Sutton has lost to antifreeze poisoning in less than two years. Both were English Setter bird dogs, which run about $1,500 each not counting the hours of personal time spent training them. Sutton, an avid bird hunter, plans to buy another, but this time will put in an underground fence.
"I don't want another one to die. I am going to have to protect my investment this time," Sutton said.
Sutton said they will probably never know for sure whether it was an accident or deliberate.
"We thought and thought about what could have happened. It seems somebody is doing it on purpose," Sutton said.
One of their neighbors has complained about several dogs in the area, including Badger and Abraham.
Just before the antifreeze poisoning, Abraham was caught eyeing the neighbor's chickens so the neighbor tied him up until Sutton could come over and get him back.
Just before Sutton's last dog died a little under two years ago, Badger was caught eyeing the chickens and was accused of picking one off.
The neighbor had called Haywood County Animal Control to complain more than once about dogs in the neighborhood.
Haywood County Animal Control investigated the antifreeze poisoning last week several days after it occurred. If someone did it on purpose, they could be charged with animal cruelty.
"You have to be able to prove that the person deliberately set it out and was malicious about it. Whether they were upset with the person and the animal was going to pay the price or whether they were upset with the animal," said Jean Hazzard, the director of Haywood animal control.
Hazzard said she has not seen a case of deliberate antifreeze poisoning.
"Sometimes it is not always deliberate. You would be surprised the people who don't realize that dogs will lap it up. It is sweet to a dog," Hazzard said.
For Pat, she is still struggling to explain this first encounter with death and loss to her 4-year-old.
"So far he is still saying 'When is Badger coming back? When is Badger coming home?'" Pat said. "It breaks my heart."
The unusual, toxic properties of antifreeze
It takes just a thimbleful of antifreeze to kill a cat, less for a bird, a smidgeon more for a dog.
Once lapped up, the animal dies a highly unpleasant death in 24 to 72 hours.
Antifreeze tastes sweet to dogs but even the far more finicky pallets of felines have a weak spot when it comes to antifreeze, said Dr. Kristen Hammett, the owner and senior veterinarian of Waynesville Animal Hospital.
The first symptoms manifest almost immediately, with the pet essentially acting like a drunken sailor — staggering, wobbly and often throwing up. Then it clears up, leaving the owner to assume whatever had gotten into their pet is all better. But within a few hours, the irreversible damage of kidney failure has set in, with gruesome and agonizing seizures and convulsions. Blood tests and a kidney examination can confirm antifreeze poisoning.
"It is not something we see every month, but it is not rare," Hammett said. "Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is malicious."
In the summer, Hammett always keeps an eye out in parking lots for the telltale green sheen of an antifreeze leak, occasionally spewed out by an overheated radiator. If she spies it, she heads inside and implores the store owner to clean it up right away. She has seen cats die after licking spots of antifreeze from their owner's driveway.
Home mechanics should always dispose of used antifreeze immediately after changing their coolant, she added.
The treatment for antifreeze ingestion is an unusual but surprisingly simple trick of chemistry.
Antifreeze in and of itself is not toxic. The active ingredient, namely ethylene glycol, is technically harmless — except enzymes in the liver convert it into another substance, and that substance causes complete kidney failure.
The treatment for swallowing antifreeze is an IV of grain alcohol straight into the blood stream.
"It keeps the liver so busy converting the grain alcohol it lets the antifreeze pass through the body unchanged," Hammett said.
— By Becky Johnson