C.S.I Billinudgel: Russell, a 1080 Survivor

In one sense, Russell is a very lucky boy. So far, in 6 years, he has survived a blow from a car, several venomous snakebites, obstruction on bladder stones, and secretly snacking on rat poison. If human he’d be diagnosed with Münchausen’s, but as a canine, he’s just oblivious to the risks he’s taking while cruising through an adventurous life. His most recent brush with fate is even more miraculous, however.


1080 (ten-eighty) is a poison that naturally occurs in many plants. It’s so especially lethal to dog, cat, and pig, it’s the preferred toxin if targeting these species when gone feral. Pet dogs that free-range on rural landscapes pay little heed to warning signs on farm gates and fences and can scavenge a bait, or are poisoned ‘second-hand’ after dining on the carcass of a 1080 victim.

Given the secret lives of dogs, unless a pet owner observes their dog eat 1080, there’s little chance to induce vomiting and avert disaster. The poison quickly enters the bloodstream, then every cell of the body, and abruptly shuts-down the TCA cycle, the engine room of cellular metabolism. Simultaneously, all living tissues begin to die of starvation.

Early warning signs for the pet owner may be as brief as a few minutes of vomiting, hyperexcitability or manic behaviour.  Horrific accounts are not unusual as frenzied dogs leap through plate glass, turn aggressive, and furiously fit in passenger seat during the frantic ambulance ride.  By the time most pets arrive at the hospital door, some are already dead and many are so advanced not even heroic intervention will save them.

Vets rarely have much success treating  dogs who fall victim to 1080, as it’s so rapidly and catastrophically fatal.  About half to two hours after ingestion, a dog will collapse into continuous tetanic convulsions that, if not swiftly controlled, will tip a patient into irreversible spirals of decline.  The usual players in terminal poisoning are circulatory shock, asphyxiation, cerebral oedema and diffuse intravascular coagulation (DIC), where circulating blood clots midstream and turns to sludge. Organ failure follows with death not far behind, all usually within two hours.

If deemed treatable, the first priority is to control seizures, typically with deep barbiturate anaesthesia. Depending on how much poison is absorbed, victims may need to remain in an induced coma for days, not unlike the ‘deep-sleep therapy’ given to sufferers of stroke and brain trauma. Intravenous fluids are used to maintain hydration and blood pressure, and if breathing is compromised, artificial ventilation may also be required.

The next step is elimination of any remaining toxin from the bowel using stomach irrigation, enemas and charcoal, followed by monitoring for signs of the life-threatening complications.  Animals may survive for days only to succumb to secondary organ failure, or may go home to lead a long and normal life after a 3-5 day hospital stay.

While there’s currently no proven antidote, a theoretic treatment has recently been described.  Glyceryl monoacetate floods the cell with acetate, outcompeting the 1080 molecule in the TCA cycle. The rarity of treatable 1080 victims means this drug been hasn’t been widely tested in the field, however.*

* Rippe, James M.; Irwin, Richard S. (2008). Irwin and Rippe’s intensive care medicine, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 1666.

Russell’s story

Not long after returning home from his self-directed, morning excursion through the paddocks, with a full belly and stinking of something rotten, Russell performed the most extraordinary act. Sounding more like a scene from children’s animation:

While remaining standing he suddenly went stiff in the legs and neck. In a rigid, sawhorse posture he then bounced on on all-fours like a sprung toy, 10 times across the yard, then fell to his side, fitting.”

On arrival at hospital Russell was immediately placed into a barbiturate coma, quelling the seizures.   Once stabilised the owner was quizzed for clues: Did he have access to lead, snail bait, or Brunfelsia? No. 1080? The neighbouring farm laid 1080 baits 2 weeks before!

Could Russell have breakfasted on a rotting 1080 victim? The bone and fur in his colon the following day supported the idea. The tetanic nature of his convulsions and extraordinary behaviour moments before his first fit were also consistent with 1080. Fortunately, with the exception of a few toxins, vets often don’t need to know the exact cause of poisoning and supportive therapy alone will do the job.

Every 2 hours Russell would rouse from his coma and require another hit of barbiturate. After 24 hours he was switched to a continuous trickle of the drug in his IV fluid line. Russell  finally emerged from his roller coaster ride, lurching from convulsion to coma. Heavily medicated but still functional, he could sit up, stand and walk, albeit drunkenly.  When photographed, above, Russell was happily stoned on 1 mg/kg/hour of Nembutal, pentobarbitone.

After 3 days in hospital and weaned-off all medication, Russell was back to normal and ready to return home.  Given dogs rarely learn from such experiences, his owners were under strict instruction to confine Russell or at least follow him on his next adventure: we couldn’t be sure he didn’t have a secret stash of 1080 carrion.


While not wanting this forum to degenerate into a slanging match between pro- and anti-1080 lobbies, this seems a good opportunity to make a few remarks about wild dog baiting.

  • For a variety of reasons, the wild dog population is growing and both domesticated animals and wildlife will suffer further if steps aren’t taken. Their seach for food and territory is already driving them closer to coastal farming areas and township outskirts.
  • The interbreeding of Dingo with introduced breeds gives these new hybrids an understanding of man and jaw machinery that makes them a greater threat to man, animal and ecosystems.
  • In a utopian world, these animals would be captured, neutered, domesticated and rehomed, but let’s face it: we don’t even have enough homes for our current pet population.
  • Theoretically, the most humane technique for destroying these animals would be a well-aimed bullet, however the reclusive and cunning temperament of wild dogs means days of stalking may be required to destroy just a few.  Unlike helicopter-herded horses or buffalo, or the headlight-dazzled kangaroo, marksmanship, no matter how good, would be too slow and labourious to control a species that can throw 10 pups a year.
  • Placing a bounty on the head of wild dogs, and unleashing a sporting shooter pogrom, is not the simple solution it may seem. Unlike the pig, a dog is not an edible or prized trophy, and inevitably pet dogs would also fall victim to such a policy.

If a bait is to be used, there are 3 major concerns:

  • Persistence of the poison. Unlike some man-made toxins that can taint the environment for decades, 1080 is derived from a plant and fully biodegrades.  In Australia, the native pea family is the most potent source, pictured below. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
  • The inadvertent poisoning of non-target species, including domestic pets and wildlife. In this regard 1080 is almost ideal in that it’s much less toxic to native animals, especially herbivores. Pet dogs and cats are at greatest risk of falling victim. It’s important that dog owners contain their pets during baiting, but also at other times, to prevent them joining or being killed by the wild dog population.
  • The level of suffering experienced by poisoned animals. The period of vomiting and mania in the early stages of 1080 would certainly reflect distress and suffering, however, once lapsed into a seizure, consciousness is lost.  Just ask an epileptic: fitting is much more unpleasant to observe than experience as a patient. Until we can develop a reliable barbiturate or narcotic bait, 1080 may be the only short term solution.

If you’d like to view a video of strychnine poisoning of street dogs in Indonesia, with similar symptoms as 1080, click here.

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5 Responses to “C.S.I Billinudgel: Russell, a 1080 Survivor”

  1. antonia staff says:

    Hi Matt, I agree the feral dog population and fox population should be controlled but this is a most horrible death for the poor animals. Is there another way? these ‘pests’ are animals too. How long will 1080 stay in the park? I wonder how close the baits are to the dog walking areas. antoina

  2. matt says:

    thanks for your thoughts, antonia. Uneaten baits are collected after a week or so, but if lost into the environment 1080 would take months to degrade. Given a wild dog may roam without symptoms for hours before the toxin has an effect, it could be carried, in a stomach, some distance from the marked sites where baits are planted.

    I agree, images of spastic convulsion are confronting, and presumptions of unconsciousness do little to quell the inner disquiet when observing. Strychnine and 1080 are stimulant toxins and a depressive agent, like barbiturate, would be less distressing to observe: the dog would get groggy, wobbly, collapse and the lapse quietly into unconsciousness and die. This is the type of agent vets use intravenously for euthanasia. Trouble is, the big doses required to ensure a fatal hit are detectable to the dog’s sense of smell and taste.

    Opiates are another matter. The doses of very potent ones, like fentanyl and etorphine, would be small and this could be feasible for baiting. But being opiates, they’re dangerous to all species, including wildlife, and drugs of addiction making their controlled distribution problematic. You can image the the local junkies trying to score baits.

    Theres bound to be more modern, effective, humane drugs available, but doing research tests into the lethal doses of new drugs to dogs, foxes, cats etc, is an ethical minefield in itself. The department of agriculture will probably just stick with their old favourite, unfortunately.

  3. Amica says:

    Hi, Matt,
    I have friends who live on an M.O. who have paid a trapper to trap wild dogs and then take them and shoot them. This seems a possible and humane way to control these animals. Can you think why (apart from cost) this is not the required or prescribed method?

  4. matt says:

    hey amica, are they leg traps? or cage? legs traps have had a very bad reputation, but there are new rubber jawed traps which are apparently less traumatic. Traps can snare other animals and need to be checked regularly so animals dont suffer for too long.

    Its difficult to compare the suffering of a trapped leg for 8 hours followed by noose snaring, caging, transportation, then a headshot, versus the intense nausea and agitation of 1080 before lapsing into the unconsciousness of a siezure.

    Unfortunately there is no simple, completely humane answer, except perhaps trying to ensure our pets dont go feral in the first place. Thats assuming we could eliminate the current feral population.

  5. VOS says:

    Hi Matt;
    The enquiring function of science /practice in veterinary application is honourable.
    Thank-you Dr!
    Enjoyed the ADP/APT/TCA cell energy system.
    RhyzomosTheory to u!!

    Vos &DaliDOGs

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