A Summer Evening on Strychnine

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Bill was brief and to the point on the phone. “I have a dog here who seems to be having a short seizure every few minutes,” Bill said. “We were wondering if you could get a look at him?”

“I have only been in town a couple of days, and I don’t have all my stuff,” I replied. “Does he have a history of seizures, or is this a new thing.”

“There is a bunch of kids here today,” Bill said. “They have been running all over the hills. One of the girls thinks he has been poisoned.”

  The sun was down, and the twilight was fading when I pulled into Bill’s driveway. It looked like a large group gathered on the front lawn of the farmhouse. Guys and gals all about high school age or a little older. A young liver and white Springer Spaniel was in the middle of the group. He was quiet, but immediately seizures when I closed the car door.

Dixie, a young blond, hovered over Max. The others showed little concern. 

“He has been getting worse, almost by the minute,” Dixie said. “He got into something down by the road, along the fence line. I think it must have been poison.”

“Was there an old deer carcass down there, or anything like that,” I said. “Sometimes, dogs can get pretty toxic from a belly full of rotten meat.”

“No, we stopped and looked,” Dixie said. “We couldn’t find anything.”

The guys were throwing a football, and it bounced past us. Max’s legs stiffened, and he stood like a sawhorse for a moment before falling onto his right side. All four of his legs were extended and shaking, and his head pulled back over his shoulders. His entire body was stiff, with every muscle contracted. His respiration was only is short, rapid, inefficient little puffs of air.

“This looks like strychnine,” I said. “Try not to stimulate him, I will get an injection for him.”

The bag that I carried was limited at this point. My pharmacy supplies were still arriving daily. I did have some Pentathol, which I mixed rapidly, with sterile water.

Max relaxed when the first few millimeters were in his vein. I continued the injection until he was completely relaxed and breathing comfortably. Then I placed an IV catheter in his front leg, capped it, and taped in securely in place.

“Strychnine kills when these convulsive seizures eventually cause respiratory paralysis,” I explained. “At this point, we need to keep Max quiet, in a darkened room and sedated.”

“How long does this injection last?” Dixie asked.

“Not long enough,” I said. “It is best to use some pentobarbital. It is longer lasting, but it is no longer available to veterinarians. This stuff is about the same, but shorter duration. It does accumulate, so with each dose, the duration is longer.”

Bill was standing over us now. “What are we going to do with him now?” Bill asked. “I’m not going to sit up with him all night. And I wouldn’t know how much of that stuff to give him.”

“I am without a clinic,” I said. “Right now, we are house hunting, and we are in a two-bedroom apartment with a baby and 3 other kids. And no pets are allowed. But I guess Max is a patient, not a pet. I can take him home with me and keep him sedated tonight. If I give you a call in the morning, can you come by and pick him up?”

“I am an early riser,” Bill said. “You give me a call, and I will run right in and get him. You sound like your pretty sure he is going to be alright.”

“You want me to be honest?” I said. “The only time I have seen strychnine toxicity was in a lab in school. There is not much to do unless you get to them early. At this stage, there is no way I can give oral medication. It is just a matter of keeping him sedated until things wear off. He will look a little hungover in the morning, but other than that, he should be good to go.”

“When I talked with Stan at the feed store, he said you seemed to be a straight shooter,” Bill said. “I like it when a guy is honest, even if it is not to his benefit.”

I gave Max a small second dose of Pentathol before loading him in the back of our station wagon. He was still asleep when I carried him into the apartment.

“Where are you going to put him?” Sandy asked.

We were bursting at the seams. The three girls are in one bedroom, and Derek, who is a couple of months old, is in our bedroom in a small crib. I bedded Max down in the bathtub. I would be up hourly for the first half of the night. Then I could probably stretch the checks out a little. With the darkened room and quiet environment, he probably won’t need too much more Pentathol tonight.

In the morning, Max was awake. Like I had told Bill, he looked like he had been out drinking all night. I offered him a small bowl of water from  Sandy’s best dishes. He lapped in it up and was looking for more. I gave him another bowl before I called Bill.

“Bill, Max is awake and doing well,” I said into the phone. “You can pick him up at any time. We probably are not going anywhere this morning, but the girls will be up shortly, and they will want to keep him if he stays around too long.”

“I’ll be right in,” Bill said. “His kennel mate is sort of acting lost this morning.”

The girls were up, and they squealed when they found a dog in the bathtub. 

“No, he is not ours, and you can’t keep him,” I explained.

Max was licking hands and faces, I think he enjoyed the attention but was looking for a bite to eat also.  

“Can I give him some cereal for breakfast?” Brenda asked.

“You can just give him a small handful,” I said. “His stomach is probably a little upset right now.”

Bill knock at the door was a welcome sound.

“Good morning,” I said as I opened the door. “Max is going to be happy to see you, I think. He hasn’t quite figured out where all these little girls have come from yet.”

“He likes kids, always has,” Bill said. “Is he walking, or do I need to carry him?” 

“I haven’t had him up, but when the girls got up, he really perked up,” I said. “I am pretty sure he will walk out of here. Did you bring a leash?”

“He wouldn’t know what a leash was,” Bill said. “He will just follow me.”

We stepped to the bathroom door, and Max looked up and jumped out of the tub in an instant.

“Come on, Max,” Bill said as he handed me a check. “Thanks a lot, we are happy to see you in town. Let’s go home, Max.” 

Max’s tail stump was going a hundred miles an hour as he crowded to get through the door ahead of Bill. Bill smiled and chuckled, something I would learn was characteristic for him.

In the following year, Dixie would come to work with us. She was our most stable employee, working on and off for over over 30 years.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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