by Tena Starr
IRASBURG — Zeke, Cindy Sanville’s 15-month-old French bulldog, was having a normal day being a rural dog. He was outside playing, rummaging around in the compost pile, doing what dogs do.
But that normal day went straight to pieces fast. Shortly after returning to the house, Zeke had to be rushed to a local veterinarian, then to Burlington Veterinary Emergency Specialists (BEVS) where he was treated for the illness that had sent him into seizures.
It turns out that compost can be highly toxic to dogs. It depends to some extent on the size of the dog and how much compost they ingest, said Whitney Durivag at BEVS. But, yes, she said, it’s not a good idea to let a dog have access to compost.
Ms. Sanville said Zeke was “always out there rummaging around in my compost pile. Which I never thought anything of.”
That day, after he’d been in the house for a while, she noticed that the little dog’s back legs were trembling a little.
“I thought maybe he’s got to poop,” so she took him outside for a walk. “We started walking and the shakes got really bad. It got horrifically worse.
“He couldn’t walk. He was basically convulsing. His head kept going up in the air and back down like he was having an epileptic seizure. It went from these little quivers to full blown.”
And, she said, his body temperature was rising fast.
She carried him home and raced him to a local veterinarian who asked if he’d been into something and if Ms. Sanville used pesticides.
No, and no.
She mentioned the compost after remembering she’d thrown some plant cuttings into it and wondered if they might be poisonous to dogs. As soon as compost was mentioned, the veterinarian said, that would do it.
It takes 30 to 90 minutes for the dog to be affected by compost, but then “mycotoxins” set in, and tremors start. At BEVS, Zeke’s system had to be flushed, and he was put on IV fluids, Ms. Sanville said.
A copy of his diagnosis, provided by his owner, says that signs of “tremorgenic mycotoxin are a sudden onset of fine muscle tremoring, twitching (especially around the face and eyes), ataxia and, in severe cases, convulsions and seizures. Usually, those signs appear after a pet has eaten moldy garbage, food or compost as this is where these toxins are most found.”
The diagnosis says that many pets need to be hospitalized on IV fluids with high doses of muscle relaxers and, if necessary, medication to stop seizures.
“Activated charcoal is given to help prevent absorption of any more of the mycotoxin that is in their system,” it says.
“There is usually no permanent damage from the mycotoxin itself once the pet has fully recovered, but there can be brain damage if the body temperature becomes too elevated for a prolonged period of time, or more often a secondary pancreatitis can develop due to the type of food ingested.”
The diagnosis goes on to say that there are at least 20 types of mycotoxins that have been found to cause similar reactions.
“We see a lot of different toxicity cases,” Ms. Durivag said. Compost, she said, is a small portion of it. More often a dog gets into chocolate or its owner’s medications, she said. “But sometimes it’s compost.”
She urges people to follow good composting practices, which include no meat or dairy in the compost pile, and to keep the compost enclosed. “When I’m walking around, and I see my neighbor’s compost pile wide open, I make a note to self,” she said. “Keep it sealed in a plastic container with a lid on. Talk to your neighbor, or don’t let your dog off leash. I think the biggest thing is to make sure you’re composting correctly. Keep it locked up.”
Ms. Sanville said she worries that, now that composting is mandatory in Vermont, incidents like the one that befell her dog might increase.
“Everybody’s composting, and everybody’s dog is getting into the compost,” she said.
Ms. Durivag said she does not believe that toxicity cases in dogs, at least the ones BEVS has seen, have increased since mandatory composting, but acknowledged it’s a fair question.
For her part, Ms. Sanville said she wanted to get the word out. Since she had no idea that compost could basically poison a dog, she suspects others don’t know either.
“I’m just trying to save someone else’s dog,” she said. “I need to tell everybody so everybody can tell everybody.”
In Zeke’s case, the story, fortunately, has a happy ending. The little dog had tremors for two days, Ms. Sanville said. “His nerve endings are whacked out. He’s on a bland diet. We’ve got to get all that toxin out of him. I hope it doesn’t have a long-term effect.”
But he’s alive. Meanwhile, Ms. Sanville had her compost pile buried. “The gist of it is don’t have open compost exposed to any animal.”