The secret lives of pets: forensic medicine

Without any direct verbal input from the patient, diagnosis of complex disease in animals may demand a forensic approach. Pets, both indoors and out, are quietly trying to kill themselves, or hide evidence of their illness. Next time a vet seems to grill you on your pet’s environment, diet and history, understand that she is merely trying to save you some of the expense of a whole bank of diagnostic tests...


What does your cat or dog get up to when you’re absent or distracted? While some pet owners openly admit they have no idea, others have difficulty accepting they know little of their pet’s private life when unaccompanied.

Most pets have secret lives, out there, playing naked in nature. Cats recklessly pick fights, catch viruses, and fall from fences; while a dog with complete disregard for personal safety will ingest poisons, deep-throat hazardous objects, and wrangle with other dogs, cars, insects and snakes.  Unbeknownst to owners, pets may be drinking like fish, throwing fits, burying their diarrhoea or bloody urine, or secretly vomiting in the garden like a teenage bulemic.

The natural environment is littered with literally hundreds of thousands of allergens and potential toxins; some man made, but most produced by plants, fungi, animals, microbes and insects. Fortunately most are only created in tiny quantities and are little threat to our wellbeing.  But given the tendency of animals to chew, swallow, snort, roll-in and get bitten-by all manner of random things, it’s common to see mysterious diseases emerging from a backyard biosphere. One such case was Chrissy Wallace..


.The stinkbugs, colonising the backyard citrus tree,  can blind a curious cat or dog with a corneal acid burn. Canine access to compost, before its fully degraded, can result in tummy upsets at best; fitting, botulism, liver and kidney failure at worst.  A cat with food allergy may be seemingly unresponsive to an elimination diet if she chooses to supplement it with the neighbour’s cat chow.

Locking yourself indoors will cut some risks, but the domestic environment has it’s own hazards.  A vase of lilies may lift the table setting, but can kill the cat that enjoys mouthing greenery. Philodendrons make great indoor plants, but may put a curious puppy in intensive care.  Cleaning products, paint or concrete dust, chocolate, and even children’s play-doh are all potentially toxic, not to mention all the possible bowel obstructions laying around. Even the cat’s very own food can be toxic with sulphites, if fed one diet for long enough; the spot of mould on the dog’s dry food could be producing deadly aflatoxin.

Pets confined to the home are more well monitored than their outdoorsy counterparts, but a lot can go on while owners are out or sleeping. In the dead of night, cats are discretely passing their bloody urine down the shower and kitchen drain holes, while the only evidence of the Boxer’s seizure maybe an upturned chair or a puddle of urine or saliva. Easily overlooked.

When a person consults their doctor, they can often describe the precise location and character of symptoms; the exact time course and sequence; and recall any incidents of physical trauma, meals, or other events that may have contributed to a problem. Meanwhile, the animal patient quietly sits there, mute, refusing to let-on about their kick from a horse, the rotting bone stashed under the house, or the satay stick swallowed 3 days earlier.

Some diseases arise spontaneously, without any immediate dietary or environmental cause, however many illnesses can be traced back to an initiating event which may seem insignificant to an owner.  This is especially important with suspected trauma, intoxications, and gastrointestinal diseases. While mouthing a cane toad is readily recognised as  a danger, unwitting owners may observe their loved canine drinking from the algal bloom in the fishpond, or licking creosote on a fence post, not realising they are watching him swallow a suicide pill. The pride in your Foxie’s successful ratting may be short-lived, when the rodent’s urine cripples him with septicaemic leptospirosis..


.Household dust, moulds, powdery kitty litter in hooded trays, owner smoking habits, or sources of stress, like house guests and renovations, can offer insight into under-laying mechanisms behind some respiratory  and urinary tract diseases. Chronic joint ailments can sometimes be traced back to repetitive strain, such as a Jack Russell’s leap from deck to lawn, chasing birds, performed 20 times a day for 8 years.

Like delinquent adolescents who pilfered their mum’s Valium in the 70’s, prescription medication sometimes ends up in pet hands.  Men, prescribed anti-balding medicine, never imagined the price of vanity could be so high, until a single pill puts their cat into heart failure.

Meanwhile, the meat flavoured anti-inflammatory pill that was so easy to give, suddenly demands stomach pumping when the arthritic Labrador gorges on the whole month’s supply. The attraction of palatable dog pills must now be weighed against the inconvenience of hiding the stash, and risks of not.

Recreational drugs pose another unique set of symptoms that vets have to learn to recognise. Requiring some tact when discussing with pet owners, vets can rarely be certain denial is anything more than fear their habit is outed..BEETLE27

.If not harassed by a waiting room full of expectant stares, vets will often scrutinise a pet owner’s recollection of events. Don’t be offended if we challenge statements  like ‘the only thing my dog eats is what I feed him’, and ‘my cat never gets into fights’.   Neglecting to mention your weekend visit to a farm or wildlife habitat, your upturned garbage bin, the dead fish chewed on the morning beach-walk, or the dog’s 6-hour, self-directed excursion, could blind your vet from potentially life-saving information.

Obscure questions like ‘Have you stripped any paint lately? Is yesterday-today-tomorrow plant in the garden? Does he play with string? What do you mulch the garden with?’ may seem obsession with irrelevant detail, but  these are examples of well targeted questions that can sometimes yield diagnostic gold.  A serendipitous remark from an owner about the visiting party-goers may alert the vet to possible marijuana OD, and save hundreds in unnecessary X-rays or blood tests.

Raised on CSI and House, many younger pet owners believe that if enough tests are done,  a root cause of an illness can always be found. Unfortunately, in real life, few diseases have symptoms unique to a particular disease, and while some toxins can be fingered by a specific test, there are hundreds of thousands that cannot.  More commonly, X-rays or blood test results will point us in a particular direction, maybe suggestive of a kidney toxin, or physical trauma like a fall.  Tests for a particular poison are often costly and given the huge number of potential toxins in the environment, known and unknown, vets rarely waste your money with many of these tests unless there is a special reason to do so.

Fortunately, oftentimes, vets don’t need to know the exact cause to treat a disease, and we simply support your puppy through the ordeal while natural healing does it’s thing.   But in more serious cases, or where repeated exposure to a toxin is suspected, please be patient with costs of investigation and treatment, and follow  doctor’s orders to go home, get a torch, and look for clues. Vet’s love the mutual reward and relief when owners return with the missing piece to the puzzle, the dead snake or chewed bottle of anti-freeze.

For an interesting cases see CSI belongil, CSI Bangalow: Spiked Custard, and special remarks on the secret lives of many birds and rabbits see Putting on a Brave Face.

Useful links describing environmental toxins

  • For a comprehensive list of plants toxic to both cats and dogs, with images, try the ASPCA site

  • For a list of toxic foods you should avoid feeding your dog, see here.

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2 Responses to “The secret lives of pets: forensic medicine”

  1. isa says:

    Hi Matt, do you mean that dogs shouldn’t lick fence posts or electricity poles (re. creosote)??? what does it looks like exactly? The lion is much better but still wondering. Keep well

  2. matt says:

    hey isa, yep creosote is hepatotoxic, and looks like a black tarry coating on usually wooden poles/posts that are imbedded in earth, used to prevent termites and rot. single lick probably wouldnt cause any trouble though. x

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