On Father’s Day, Dr. Trevor Ferguson of Florence took some time to take his family’s three German wirehaired pointers for a run and swim on some state land just east of his home.
With access to the Big Ditch and a pond, the spot at the end of Dry Gulch Road is a favorite for local hunting dog enthusiasts.
It’s always been a place that Ferguson thought he could go where his dogs would be safe to run.
The Missoula veterinarian doesn’t think that anymore.
The family’s 4-year-old Sula — a grand champion both in the show ring and the field — didn’t eat anything the night after he brought his dogs from their weekend run. As usual, Ferguson took Sula to work with him at the Blue Mountain Veterinarian Hospital on Monday morning. By early afternoon, the veterinarian could see that his dog was in trouble.
She began to vomit. Her eyes were twitching back and forth. She couldn’t stand. It was hard for her to even lift her head.
“She was full blown neurologic,” Ferguson said.
So far, all the tests offered few clues as to why. Ferguson said it’s very challenging and expensive to determine what kind of poison a dog may have ingested. All he knows for certain is her potassium levels in her blood were low.
He has seen dogs that had been poisoned by antifreeze or rat poison, and his dog wasn’t exhibiting symptoms that would lead him to believe that was the cause.
“We’re keen on picking out rat poison or antifreeze, but this seems to be more complicated,” Ferguson said. “This is something that is clearly different.”
After the family’s story about Sula went public, Ferguson heard from another hunting dog trainer who lost a Chesapeake retriever at the same spot four days earlier. They’ve also heard from a growing number of people and other veterinarians about other dogs that appear to have been poisoned in the Lone Rock area northeast of Stevensville.
Many of those dogs died quickly.
At least five people have contacted the Ferguson family directly about family dogs that died. Ferguson said he knows of several others that died at other veterinarian clinics. Some of the deaths weren’t reported to law enforcement, he said.
But enough were that Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton assigned a person to investigate.
“We have an investigator assigned to it who is pretty much working full time on it,” Holton said. “We’re waiting for some lab testing and trying to identify what’s making these dogs sick.”
“Right now, we don’t have any suspects,” Holton said. “I would encourage folks that if they see something suspicious or just out of the ordinary, or if they have a dog that gets sick, to report that so we can work on it.”
Dr. Kristin Bull of the Burnt Fork Veterinary Clinic in Stevensville is recommending people keep their dogs close by and on a leash. If possible, Bull said it would be good to avoid the areas of Dry Gulch and Three Mile.
"We want you to know that we are very concerned about any potential poisoning of dogs in our area and are doing everything we can to investigate the cause,” Bull said. “At this time, we do not know if these local cases are linked or if they were indeed poisoned without further testing.”
Pet owners should watch for signs of weakness, lethargy, vomiting or diarrhea, or neurologic signs. If they think their pets may have been exposed to something, call their veterinarian.
Ferguson has heard stories that people have found dog food that may have been tainted near driveways. He encourages anyone who spots something like that to collect it and turn it over to authorities.
“A toxicology test can cost thousands of dollars when you don’t know what you’re searching for,” he said. “It would be easier to test a sample that someone finds.”
Ferguson has no idea what his dog could have picked up on state land.
“I can’t say specifically what it was that she got into,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t see her pick up anything. The other two dogs didn’t get into the ditch or drink any water from there. Sula did.”
As of Thursday, Sula was still alive.
But she’s far from recovered.
“After being up for about five minutes, she collapses and sleeps for 10 hours,” Ferguson said. “She’s a really cool dog. We just had an amazing litter with her. She’s a great hunting dog, and now she can barely walk a straight line. I don’t know if she’ll ever be the same again.”
“We’re just devastated,” said Ferguson’s wife, Courtney. “It’s such a feeling of helplessness.”
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