Every good dog has a story, and every story has a beginning and sadly, an ending. Tae was a dog loaded with personality; positively brimming with foolishness and good nature but sorely lacking in independent thought. Without his better half, his litter mate Little Sis, his one functioning brain cell would shut down. Although Tae wasn't the brightest crayon in the box, he had his moments. Once he learned what was expected of him in the field he was a joy to hunt over. Getting him there was a process but let's just call it a labor of love. His desire to hunt and his boundless exuberance in the field made up for any rough edges. Bottom line, he could find most birds, and if we shot it, he'd retrieve it. He never missed.
When our springer bitch Bumper had her first litter in 2002, my husband and I ended up keeping the "oddballs". I kept the only female in the litter and Jay kept the only liver and white. Jay named his pup Beau Tae's Harvest, and I named mine Beau Tae's Little Sister. They were inseparable; wherever one was the other wasn't far behind. Sis was slow to mature so I didn't try to hunt her until she was eighteen months old. I took my time with her training and she developed into a solid bird dog. Slow and methodical where her mother worked at warp speed, she was a nice change of pace. Tae, on the other hand, was flushing and retrieving at the tender age of six months. We let him get a few birds his first season and then slowed down, but he was always a hard hunting and determined dog.
Tae hated stubble fields or cut hayfields. He'd range out ahead reluctantly and quarter on command but his heart wasn't in it. However, if there was a willow clogged creek bottom or an overgrown field too thick to penetrate, Tae was the dog for the job. He was a brush hog, using his short, wide barrel chest and big feet to burrow deep. If a bird was there, he'd flush it out with gusto. He lived for creek bottoms and brushy hillsides; he thrived in wide open CRP fields choked with years of uncut alfalfa and sharp tailed grouse.
On May 4th, 2009, I came home from a long and exhausting weekend in nearby Great Falls. The previous week we'd had a record spring snowfall of 25+ inches. By Thursday afternoon the roads were wet but passable and I drove 65 miles west to Great Falls with my horse and gear loaded into the trailer. I fought snow and slush and mud for four days and had the power steering in our one-ton Dodge dually quit in traffic. By Sunday evening, when Jay came to collect me in a borrowed pickup, I was ready for a hot tub and bed.
It was not to be. The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the yard was Tae. Normally an overly exuberant dog even by springer standards, he sat dejected and forlorn under the lilac bush, ears drooped, eyes dull and his expression one of pain and misery. A quick check revealed his temperature was elevated and his capillary refill was poor. I called the vet and within minutes of arriving home we were back in the car, this time headed to Lewistown, 45 miles east.
"My research was stymied by nothing more than a reluctance to poke a fresh wound. As much as I wanted to find out what killed Tae, it was difficult for me to approach it head on."
Because we had discovered a chewed up hard plastic cover to a weather station in the yard, our initial thought was that Tae had eaten the cover and was in discomfort. An x-ray confirmed this hypothesis and our vet started him on IV fluids and pain meds. Because his house and clinic are on the same property, our vet (bless his overworked heart) kept a weather eye on Tae all night and into the wee hours of the morning.
At around eight AM he called. Tae had flat lined but they got him back. He was stable and they would call back as soon as they knew anything. Less than half an hour later, he called back and said the words that I dreaded. Tae was gone.
Without pause he said, "I have to do a necropsy on this dog." I was oddly calm and thought of all the important reasons why a necropsy was imperative; was it cancer? A genetic problem? Poison? Regardless of the reasons, we had to know what happened to Tae, if nothing else than to know our bloodline was not tainted by something genetic. By this time Little Sis, now spayed, had given us three wonderful litters of pups. We had to know.
The necropsy brought up more questions than it answered. There definitely were pieces of plastic in his intestines, but the vet felt these were secondary and completely irrelevant, Tae would have passed them unnoticed. What he did find was bizarre: his kidney and liver were black, his spleen was covered in nodules and spots and looked like it belonged in a fourteen year old dog. His lungs had the consistency of memory foam. Again, my vet insisted on taking it further and I had no objections. Tissue samples were sent to Montana State University in Bozeman and we waited.
While we waited, I began a search of my own. I started thinking back; when was he sick? The answer was simple: never. He was fine on Saturday (as per my husband, since I was gone), sick Sunday and dead Monday. At no time prior to Saturday can any of us remember Tae being sick or even slightly off. He played with our two young dogs, nephew and niece Bug and Boo. He ran side by side with Sis and swam in the pond with Bumper. He rooted through the fresh spring grass for mice or gophers and did all sorts of normal doggy things, but not once all spring or even back into the winter could we remember Tae being sick.
We contacted the town mayor to ask about any spraying or poisons in town, but that's something they just don't do. The water treatment ponds are behind our property on the edge of town, and the overflow from those ponds goes into our pond and creek. That water is tested as safe for rivers, ponds and livestock before it's ever dumped. The cemetery is next to our property as well, but the cemetery caretaker said they don’t poison gophers or spray weeds. We hadn't even begun to spray weeds on our own property and neither had any of our neighbors. We were at a loss.
When the results came back on the tissue samples, it was both a relief and a concern. Relief because cancer was ruled out, and while his liver and lungs presented like he'd died of congestive heart failure, his heart was perfectly healthy. I would have requested more specific testing but the pathologist threw out the tissue samples. In summary, his report stated: "The lack of other significant findings in the tissues presented would be consistent with a toxic etiology."
So we were still left wanting answers and had little to go on. Several friends who had been hunting birds in Montana for many years suggested that Tae could have been hunted or run in a field recently sprayed by herbicides. My vet concurred that it was the most likely cause, although without tissue samples to test, no one could confirm it. That started my search.
My research was stymied by nothing more than a reluctance to poke a fresh wound. As much as I wanted to find out what killed Tae, it was difficult for me to approach it head on. Repeated attempts at starting this article and digging into the internet for information stopped before they could really begin. I finally bit the bullet and sent out a few emails of inquiry. I had my best luck with UC Davis where I found several articles.
Imagine my dismay when I realized that there were literally hundreds of different herbicides to choose from (344 herbicides listed on ToxNet.com alone). I know many of the common herbicides used here: Roundup, Alli, 2-4-D, Grazon and others but I didn't know them by their chemical names. All the chemicals I read about indicated a reaction would be readily apparent within minutes or hours after exposure or ingestion, and we quite simply couldn't remember a day in all his seven years that Tae showed any of those symptoms. We checked with our vet who confirmed that Tae had never been brought in exhibiting symptoms of poisoning of any sort.
The general symptoms for poisoning in dogs are:
- Oral or skin irritation
- Upset stomach / vomiting / diarrhea
- Rapid breathing
- Heart failure
- Excitability or lethargy
- Tremors / seizures
- Increased thirst
- Dilated pupils
- Dizziness / loss of balance
Our best guess was that Tae might have been hunted in a field that had been sprayed and absorbed some toxins through his nose and/or mouth. Or maybe at some point he ate something poisonous. He could have drank a toxin from a stream or pond as well, but any of those he'd have been exposed to would have also watered cattle, sheep, horses and wild life. Would there not be instances of deaths in some of them?
We were left with more questions and few answers. If we still had the tissue samples we could have tested for specific substances like Roundup, Alli, and Grazon. Since that option wasn't open to us we could only speculate. Regardless, when we hunt we now make sure to ask the landowner, "Have you sprayed this fall?"
We miss our Surfer Dude every day. We miss his goofy hair, his gargantuan feet, and his sloppy kisses. We miss the crash and thunder of Tae diving into brush and the absolute joy in his eyes when he retrieved a bird. But I don't think we miss him as much as Little Sis, who pined for months for her lost brother and best friend.
Rest in peace Tater-Tot.