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K9 and Antifreeze Do Not Mix

Just how toxic is ethylene glycol to a police canine?  Some of you may be surprised that it is deadly to our partners.  It is so dangerous that by the time you understand of even realize that your K9 has ingested it you are already too late.  In this column I am going to go into detail on what ethylene glycol is, how to prevent your partners’ exposure, why it is toxic to your partner and how to survive an exposure.

Ethylene glycol is your basic run of the mill vehicle antifreeze.  The importance to your police canine in reference to this is that it will kill and kill swiftly.  What is it in ethylene glycol that drives our canines into it?  It is a sweet–taste that is appealing to animals and consumption of very small amounts can lead to rapid kidney failure and death.  Once those effects start taking place they are irreversible and most certainly will lead to your partner’s death.

There are a few ways in which your partner may come into contact with antifreeze.  The most obvious is the classic example of the vehicle just simply leaking the antifreeze.  As a result of a leaking radiator you may encounter it on driveways, gravel or dirt roads, and streets.  It can even be found on the sidewalk, or opened cans stored in sheds, garages, or barns. 

Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol that is highly toxic to dogs and cats.  When your partner ingests the chemical concoction the metabolic products of ethylene glycol cause severe damage to your partner’s kidneys, which in turn affects the central nervous system.  A very small amount of ethylene glycol is deadly.   Timely intervention is crucial in beating the odds in favor of your partner’s survival.  If you suspect an unintentional expose it is important to make contact with your veterinarian immediately.  It takes approximately three to twelve hours for the first symptoms to occur.  You will notice that your partner will appear to be confused, or intoxicated.  You may see vomiting, your partner being very tired, or a terrible odor coming from their breath.

So with all this information available about antifreeze intoxication it happened to me.  My K9 and I were assisting an off duty officer with a reckless driver that nearly ran him off the road.  We weren’t far off from the call, so we went.  The vehicle had already parked at a house on a white gravel driveway.   The driver immediately made his way inside the house before our arrival on scene.  Once on scene we could not get the driver or any occupant in the home to come to the front door.  I made the decision to utilize my K9 partner to conduct an exterior vehicle sniff for illegal narcotic odor.  The weather conditions at the time was light rain and the area we would be conducting an exterior vehicle sniff was dark. 

I used my K9 on the exterior.  He did not make any noticeable alerts.  Once we rounded the front of the vehicle he pulled me to the driver’s side and underneath he went.  My first instinct was that he was in odor and was at source.  My partner being in antifreeze was the farthest thing in my mind at this point.  After a few seconds I realized that he was not in odor and when I shined the flashlight on him my heart sank.  He was licking the gravel.  The gravel was already wet and I really didn’t have a way to tell if he was in animal odor or actually licking antifreeze.

A few minutes passed and I was watching him hard.  I didn’t notice any type of intoxicating behavior.  I had sent a message to my dispatcher on the computer to have her Google the information and I would be guided by that.  A few more minutes passed and still no effects, so now I am thinking that I am over reacting to the situation.  The dispatcher messaged me back and the intent of the message was that if you even think he was exposed take him immediately to the veterinarian.  I made that call.

I spoke with the on-call veterinarian and he told me that he had a test to check for antifreeze poisoning at his office.  He asked how long it would take for me to get to his office.  I informed him that I was already in the parking lot awaiting his arrival. 

The veterinarian arrived and immediately pulled some blood samples.  He had a test kit in the office that was consistent with an on scene narcotic field test kit.  He prepared my canines blood which took about 10 minutes; it felt like years.  Once the preparation took place he readied the blood to be placed in the kit.  The kit works like this: the faster it turns purple the higher the exposure.  The veterinarian dropped a little bit of blood into the kit and it immediately turned violet purple.  It didn’t take seconds or minutes.  It turned immediately.  With that information I went back and checked on my partner and he was not experiencing any noticeable side effects.  The veterinarian advised that there was only two places that he knew of that even carried the antidote to reverse the ethylene glycol poising.  One was one hour and forty-five minutes away and the other was only forty-five minutes away.  Our veterinarian made the phone call and they advised they did have it in stock.  Off we went.

Arriving at the animal trauma center scared me enough to believe that my partner may die.  I lost it.  I took him into the office and they did their quick screening of him.  They did up their estimate of cost and it exceeded a little over $2,000.  I said take him – fast and get started on the treatments.  The folks that worked there were so nice.  They said call anytime.  I didn’t even make it out of their driveway before calling.

My K9 partner was successfully treated for his ethylene glycol poisoning.  He was in their ICU from late Saturday night into Monday morning.  That was the longest wait of my life.  He made a 100% recovery and was back at work that following Tuesday.  He required two (2) antidotes at a cost of $530 apiece.  The nurse who was watching over him informed me that this was the first animal she had seen survive an ordeal like this.

Please, if you even suspect in the least bit that your partner ingested antifreeze handle it immediately.  If I had made the wrong decision in reference to this I could have very well lost my friend and partner.  Ethylene glycol is so serious and that when you figure out that is what your partner got into, most likely the kidneys have already started their failure.  Once this occurs it is irreversible.  Please err on the side of caution.  Timely treatment can save their lives.

About the Author:

Chris Watkins started his law enforcement career as a police officer in our Nation’s Capital before moving his family west. In DC he worked with the Major Narcotics Unit as well as performing undercover assignments in the Street Robbery Unit. In his new location he was assigned to the Street Crimes Unit with the majority of his duties encompassing narcotics investigations and doing more undercover work. Currently he’s assigned as a K-9 handler for his agency. He’s an active member of the American Police Canine Association, Fraternal Order of Police, Free and Accepted Masons, and the Kentucky Narcotic Officers Association.