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Dogs suffer after neighbor uses rodent bait

Fallbrook resident Jeff Lassle is mourning the death of his Labrador, Starbuck, and finding the whole ordeal even more painful knowing it could have been prevented. Starbuck, along with Lassle’s two other dogs appear to have been victims of a neighbor’s rodent bait station.

“I held Starbuck in my arms while he died,” Lassle said. “I had no clue that poisoning was involved at the time.” Starbuck’s pulmonary system hemorrhaged; he was five-years old.

Lassle lives in the Champagne Crest area of Fallbrook.

On Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009, Lassle said Starbuck began coughing, as if something was caught in his throat. The symptoms continued the following day, and on Monday morning, Starbuck died. That evening, things took another turn for the worse.

“Sadie, my seven-year-old black Labrador, started urinating blood all over the garage and in the house,” Lassle said.

On Tuesday morning, the day after Starbuck’s death, Lassle noticed what appeared to be a green jug on his street. It was steps away from his front door -- mangled with dog puncture marks. When Lassle closely inspected it he read a dreaded word: poison.

“That’s when I took Sadie to Fallbrook Veterinary Hospital, because at that point, I knew she had anti-coagulant poisoning,” Lassle said. “According to Dr. Pyne, I got Sadie there just in time because she had already lost 20 to 30 percent of her blood.”

The active toxic ingredient in this rodenticide was Diphacinone. When consumed, it can cause a mammal to bleed to death.

“Sadie’s illness was a direct result of ingestion of rodent bait poison,” said Pyne, noting how blood work confirmed the clotting defect. “The seriousness is that these poisons are readily available for sale to the public and they are invariably fatal to domestic pets when ingested even in small amounts.”

Annually, Fallbrook Veterinary Hospital treats between 15 to 20 animals who’ve consumed rodenticides. Early detection, Pyne said, is essential to successfully treat the animal.

Sadie was discharged after spending a day in the hospital. But it wasn’t long until Lassle’s miniature dachshund, Ginger, an indoor dog, began urinating blood. Lassle administered Vitamin K, the antidote for an anti-coagulant.

“Most rodent bait poisonings are a major problem in rural areas like Fallbrook, where they are used in groves to kill gophers, squirrels and rats,” Pyne said. “These poisons have an attractive taste to domestic pets and should be used with extreme caution.”

Years ago, Lassle was an employee of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He acted as an analytical chemist and environmental inspector for pesticides and hazardous wastes.

“I conducted many research projects and wrote much of the laws and regulations adopted under FIFRA (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act) by state government including writing the tests used to license pesticide applicators that may be still used today,” Lassle said.

How the rodent bait station ended up in front of Lassle’s house remains a mystery. An animal may have carried it, or the December torrential rains could have washed it down the hillside. Regardless of how it got there, he said, bait stations are supposed to be secured.

Lassle said he was able to locate the neighbor who owned the bait station. “He admitted it was his and didn’t even apologize,” Lassle said.

State law requires those who use bait stations to post “baiting” signs every 100 feet around the site. Without it, Lassle said, people can open themselves up to a civil liability lawsuit based on negligence.

If federal label instructions on rodenticide products are ignored, buyers are faced with a potential federal violation. These labels clearly warn users to keep poisons away and inaccessible from people, children and pets.

“The bottom line is that if I knew that poisoning was going on in the neighborhood, my dogs would have been locked up in the house and not outside,” said Lassle, noting how he’s keeping his dogs indoors for fear of any poisonous residue. “These are dangerous products and people have no clue how toxic it is.”

As far as Lassle is concerned, the only people who should be touching rodenticides are licensed applicators who know how to use it, and more importantly, how much to use.

Steve Cully, manager of L&M Fertilizer in Fallbrook, recommends using traps if one wants to use a non-toxic approach for rodent removal. Some traps, he explained, give one the option to relocate the animal.

According to Daniel DeSousa of the County of San Diego Department of Animal Services, it is forbidden to catch and relocate ground squirrels. These rodent types are disease carriers.

Owl boxes are another rodent control alternative for rural areas. A pair of owls living in a nesting box can kill up to 2,000 rodents per year.

For Lassle, the poisoning of his dogs has fueled a personal mission – to work with legislators and scientists to make a positive difference in this situation. Lassle says he will challenge officials to take a closer look at poisonous baits and the public health risk it has on residential neighborhoods.

“I’m not going to stop until justice is served, people stop buying this stuff, and companies who are selling them give better instructions in how to use them,” he said.

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