Unnecessary Death and Painful Lessons

She didn’t have to die.

That’s the first thought my mind screamed when the cell phone’s gentle vibration on a Saturday afternoon revealed an email from one of the pet parents whose dog attended daycare regularly at my facility. It was brief.

Cathy,

Overnight Moo Moo passed away. We took her to the vet this morning and he confirmed that she choked on an old bone she had been chewing on. She might have swallowed too big of a piece.

Kat and I are just devastated. I am sure you understand our incredible pain and we would like to have some time before we can talk about it.

Thank you for your understanding,

Kat and Francois

Moo MooThe horror of the situation paralyzed me. In the category of doting, responsible, engaged pet parents there are few who could rival Kat and Francois. From the very beginning they were deeply involved in wanting to insure they were doing all the right things. They researched vets, went through extensive training (for them and their pup), insured she had the best diet, proper toys and treats and of course a voluminous level of love. I could not imagine what it had been like for these wonderfully loving people to wake up and go to greet their adorable pup as they had every morning for over a year, and to find her dead.

That it appeared to be a situation over which they had control, was dreadful. But I know these people and I know how deeply responsible they are. I could not imagine they’d have left their dog unattended to chew anything – let alone some sort of bone. They knew better.

Turns out the situation was even more horrific than I’d thought, and I was right – it wasn’t their fault.

As a dog care professional, losing a pup that is part of the pack is something for which you steel yourself from the beginning. Dogs have short lives. If you stay in business long enough, you’re going to see them pass away. Though only in operation since December 2013, we already have had a few losses – pups that joined our club already in the twilight of their lives and passed away peacefully and calmly with their loving owners helping them gently cross the Rainbow Bridge.In one case a member of our staff went with the pup parent to the vet to be present and offer support when they had to let their dog go.

Then there are the tragedies – dogs getting loose and getting hit by cars, other accidents, illness and disease; but something like this, something that felt so utterly and entirely avoidable, those are just shattering.

Of course I had very little information from the brief note Francois had sent, and the last thing I was going to do was pry any further during this time of deep grief. I gave them space, knowing that when they were ready, they’d get in touch and I could learn more about what had happened.

In the mean time, my thinking wended down a path I didn’t want to consider. Had these owners, as loving and responsible as they were, been culpable in this situation? The number of people who leave bones, chews and other long-lasting digestible treats down on the ground for their dogs to consume, at will, for extended lengths of time is substantial. All too often people leave their dogs with bones and chews as a pacifier of sorts. I hear it all the time. The dog has separation anxiety, cries and whimpers or destroys things when their human leaves, and so in an attempt to distract the dog they leave the dog something to “keep them busy”.

This is a grave mistake. First of all from a behavioral and training perspective this method does nothing but exacerbate the behavior by putting a Band-Aid on it rather than addressing the underlying issues. That is a topic for another day. To the point of this post, these types of treats – whether they be antlers, bones, tendons, cow hooves, pig ears, bully sticks or any of the other appropriate, healthy type chews for dogs – should never, under any circumstances, be left on the ground for the dog to consume as it wishes. Any bones or chews should, as described above, be given as treats, to be enjoyed for a short period (15-20 minutes) and then taken away and put out of reach. Some dogs will demolish chews and treats of this sort in that time frame.  So long as the owner is present and keeping a watchful eye to insure no small pieces (aka choking hazards) are present, let the pup enjoy!

I put the thought from my mind, hoping I was wrong.

A few days passed, and I heard back again from Francois and Kat. It turned out that the “bone” on which Moo Moo had been chewing wasn’t a bone at all. It was rawhide.

My blood ran cold.

I’m sure there are proponents of rawhide products (like the folks who make them) who would swear on their own dogs’ lives these products are safe. They are not. Putting aside the sometimes unconscionable manufacturing practices that have led to the deaths of thousands of animals (stories like this first arose in 2013 and continued through 2015 when finally some companies took action), rawhide products are nothing but a disaster waiting to happen.

Kat and Francois knew this. So how on earth did it come to pass that their beloved Moo Moo ended up with one of these “treats” lodged in her throat? Easy. Misleading packaging. While the receipt for their purchase at a Smith’s Supermarket did note “rawhide”, the packaging of the product itself made no mention of this word. Instead it called the product “beef hide”. Though educated and informed, Kat and Francois are still just pet parents. They are not pet industry professionals and as such they didn’t know that beef hide and rawhide … well, they’re the same thing.

What is it, exactly, about rawhide that makes it so dangerous? Quite a few things – from the way it’s generally made, to the fact that once ingested the material often doesn’t break down and in fact small pieces may expand once inside the dog’s body creating blockages that, as in the case of Moo Moo, may be fatal.

Utterly bereft at their loss, Kat and Francois turned to turn their pain into action, with some interesting results. After some research they were deeply dismayed to find out just how many people have suffered similar losses. It also became clear there is an organization with the power to address the problem – The Food and Drug Administration. So they created a petition (at the time this post was written they had garnered just over 60,000 signatures) intended to convince the FDA that these products need far more strict regulation and perhaps even removal entirely from store shelves.

Taking their action a step further, Kat and Francois reached out directly to Smith’s and the parent company. They got this form letter in response.

A disappointing answer, but not unexpected. While entirely unconscionable any store would retain products like these on their shelves, sadly large chains aren’t run by conscience. They’re run by the bottom line. So until there is appropriate pressure from above (aka the FDA) or unless consumers stop purchasing the products making having them on the shelves a bad financial choice, Moo Moo is unlikely to be the last fatality from these heinous products.