It’s rare for the death of a dog to make international headlines. Jagger was a good-looking three year old Irish Setter who died in Belgium, the day after returning from Crufts, where he had won a prize for being second in his class. The reason for the interest from the mass media was this: Jagger’s owner claimed that his death was caused by deliberate poisoning.

Jagger died soon after returning from Crufts

The day after competing in Crufts in Birmingham on Thursday, Jagger had travelled back to his home in Belgium by train, arriving around midnight on Friday. His owner then prepared food for him, but when she called him, he collapsed and started shaking, before going into a coma, then dying. She called her vet immediately, and an autopsy was carried out. It was reported that the dog’s stomach contained “cubes of meat – some sort of beef-like steak – that had been sewn up with poison inside”. At the time, the suggestion has been made that the dog had been fed the poison bait on Thursday, in a formulation designed to be released slowly. Samples were sent to the toxicology laboratory for analysis, and two poisons were identified – carbofuran and aldicarb. These are fast acting agricultural toxins, illegal in the EU, which would cause severe clinical symptoms to occur within half an hour to three hours, meaning that it was not possible that the poison bait had been eaten the previous day.

Poisoning is common in daily veterinary practice

As a vet in practice, I’ve often been called to assist in episodes of suspected malicious poisoning. There are three types of incident which fall into this category.

Unexplained sudden deaths

First, the unexplained sudden severe illness and death of a dog, where a grief-stricken owner is desperately looking for a reason for their pet’s demise, and perhaps someone to blame. There are many possible reasons for sudden death, from brain haemorrhage, to heart failure, to an acute viral infection, to an internal catastrophe such as the twisting of an abdominal organ. When an owner witnesses such a death, poison is often at the top of their personal list of likely causes, but in reality, it’s exceptionally rare. The only way that it can be ruled in or out is by carrying out a detailed autopsy, but even this is often not conclusive. Many causes of sudden death (as listed above) leave surprisingly scanty physical evidence, and it isn’t as easy as you’d think to carry out a “poison analysis” on samples from the digestive tract. Each poison needs to be searched for specifically, and there are dozens of possibilities. Each individual test costs money, so it would be easy to spend many hundreds of pounds fruitlessly checking for poisons. Many cases of sudden death remain a mystery, with no definitive answer.

Accidental poisoning

The second type of suspected malicious poisoning happens when a dog shows classical signs of poisoning rather than the vaguer signs of just “sudden severe illness then death”. Examples include neurological signs (such as staggering, fitting and collapse), digestive signs (such as vomiting and diarrhoea), respiratory signs (such as difficulty breathing) or signs linked to poor blood clotting. Sometimes a clinical work up can be fairly definitive that a poison is the cause, and an owner’s automatic response is often that it must be deliberate. In fact, most poisonings are accidental rather than planned: dogs investigate the world with their mouths. Many poisonous substances are left within a dog’s reach (e.g. rat poison, slug bait, and weedkillers) and this is the most common reason for dogs to be poisoned.

Deliberate malicious poisoning

The third type of suspected malicious poisoning is the real thing: when somebody deliberately leaves out poison bait for a dog. In thirty years of vet practice, I have only come across this on a handful of occasions. In most cases, several dogs have been affected and often the owners have actually witnessed their dogs taking the bait. In one case, the owner brought the remainder of the bait with them to the vet: it was very obviously poison mixed with meat. The signs of poisoning usually start within minutes or hours of the poison being taken. A specific poison is usually suspected from the signs shown by the dog, so only one test needs to be done in the laboratory, making it easy to have the cause proven. In most cases, there was an obvious motive for the poisoning (e.g. history of dogs chasing sheep in a rural area, complaints about dogs barking in a neighbourhood). Such cases are exceptionally rare, thank goodness.

What was the cause of Jagger’s death?

Jagger’s death definitely fits into the third category: deliberate malicious poisoning, but there is still a mystery over how exactly this happened. The timing of it – over 24 hours after leaving Crufts – means that it cannot have happened at the dog show. It seems far more likely that the dog picked up the poison bait in his home country, during the two or three hours prior to developing signs of toxicity. Was it a bait left out specifically for this dog? Or was it a bait left out for foxes in the neighbourhood that Jagger picked up by accident? Perhaps we’ll never know the final answer to this well-publicised mystery.

If your dog shows sudden signs of illness and you’re not sure what to do, use the VetHelpDirect symptom checker: the chances are that you will need to call your vet at once, but this quick-to-use guide may reassure you that you are taking the right course of action.