GRAND FORKS — With hunting seasons hitting full swing, it’s a good reminder for dog owners to keep an eye on their canine companions in the field or around the hunting shack.
Or anywhere else where they might get into something they shouldn’t.
No one, perhaps, knows that better than Darin Heller of Afton, Minn., who almost lost his 4½-year-old black Lab, Bee Bee, recently after she ingested 20-year-old rat poison pellets without him seeing or knowing it.
It all started Labor Day weekend when Heller, who is my cousin, made a trip to his hunting shack in northern Minnesota to work on deer stands and tend to the seemingly endless list of chores that need tending around camp as hunting seasons draw near.
When he got to camp the Friday of Labor Day weekend, Heller noticed a bear had gotten into an old camper that is used for storage behind his shack.
Time was short and the to-do list was long, though, and so Heller put the mess on the backburner until later in the weekend.
He headed back to the Twin Cities on Labor Day after a productive weekend in the boonies.
Everything seemed fine with Bee Bee until Thursday, Sept. 10, Heller recalls.
“She was just super lethargic,” he said. “She didn’t want to get up; she was just down and out.”
Knowing that wasn’t typical behavior for the dog he calls his “best friend and hunting buddy,” Heller brought Bee Bee to a veterinary clinic in nearby Lakeland, Minn., where testing showed the Lab’s red blood cell counts were abnormally low.
“They kept asking me about poison, and I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t think so,’” said Heller, who called his wife, Heather, to have her check the bait boxes around the house even though they use sealed bait and not the pellets.
It hadn’t yet dawned on him that Bee Bee might have gotten into the rat poison pellets that had been in the old camper the bear ransacked.
“I wasn’t even thinking that,” Heller said. “And then the other thing is that it took almost four days (for symptoms) to show up so we didn’t know. A time had passed, and I didn’t know if she had eaten a bone and punctured herself or something.
“Who knows? We had no idea.”
Heller left Bee Bee at the veterinary clinic for observation, but when her blood cell counts continued to drop, the veterinarian doing the testing called and said she needed a blood transfusion.
“They said, ‘You’ve got to come and get her and take her to the animal hospital,’” Heller said.
Fortunately, the Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota was just minutes away in nearby Oakdale.
“I ran as fast as I could to get down there,” Heller said. “Fortunately, and thank God, it was very close to me; it’s right by me. And so I rushed her there, they got her in and when they checked her blood when they were doing their diagnostics, she was going downhill fast.”
Explaining what they were going to do, a veterinarian told Heller that Bee Bee might not survive.
“But they were able to do a blood transfusion and then a plasma transfusion,” Heller said. “Sometimes they have to do that maybe twice, but with her, they only — fortunately — had to do it once.”
Based on Bee Bee’s symptoms, the emergency room veterinarian told him there was a 95% indication she’d ingested poison, Heller recalls.
That’s when it clicked.
Thinking back on the incident, Heller says he remembers seeing an empty box of rat poison outside the camper the bear had raided. Time was, Heller says, when he used to put out a box of the pellets every fall when he closed up camp.
“I’m probably thinking, No. 1, it was probably empty because it’s been in the shed for 25 years and (rodents) have eaten it all,” Heller said. “Or, the bear ate it, and boy is he sick.
“It never dawned on me that my dog ate it because it was so long ago.”
Had he seen Bee Bee eat the pellets, Heller says he could have induced vomiting with hydrogen peroxide. He never goes afield without it and even has a bottle in the canine first aid kit he carries.
“I literally have bottles of hydrogen peroxide that I bring with me hunting just for that reason because you can induce vomiting,” Heller said. “So, that was the one thing I wanted to let people know is if your dog does get into poison, you can usually induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide.”
Bee Bee’s fine now, and she’ll be in the field with Heller this weekend for the Minnesota waterfowl opener.
Hindsight’s always 20/20, but had he known, Heller says he could have saved himself a costly veterinary bill and the stress and panic of nearly losing his prized hunting companion with a few cents’ worth of hydrogen peroxide.
He wanted to share his experience in the hopes other dog owners can avoid similar incidents.
“Evidently, the newer rodenticides are even more fatal to dogs, as they create bleeding of the brain, and there is no antidote,” Heller said. “The only way to save them is to induce vomiting if you detect it right away.”
His advice for dog owners, in a nutshell, boils down to this:
“Do not use those pouches or pellets for mice and rats,” he said. “Use the sealed bait boxes.”