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Sudden death: there are a number of possible causes.

QUESTION I had a very sad day this last hunting season when Dixie, my 6-year-old English setter, died suddenly during a quail hunt. She had been perfectly fine all her life with no medical issues other than throwing up when she would eat something she shouldn't have. She was in great shape. We were midway through our wild bird season and she had been hunting with great stamina, eating normally and acting completely normal.

The day she died had been normal for her. She went from running full speed to stopping to lying down to gone in what seemed like less than a minute. We tried our best to do CPR but she did not respond at all as far as I could tell. By the time we got on the road with her it was obvious she was gone and there was no hope.

I was in shock about the whole thing and so we buried her without having her checked out because it was on the weekend and I wasn't thinking straight because of the stress. Now I wish I had the answer so I would know if there was something different I could have done. What do you think it could have been? I know it would be speculation but I'm still interested in your opinion.--D


ANSWER I am very sorry for the loss of your dog. Losing a dog while hunting must be the most shocking of all deaths. Going from actively hunting and enjoying yourself to probably not feeling like hunting again for quite a while is an amazingly bad turn of events.

Your dog was probably in the prime of her life in every way. It was a huge shock and it is hard to think straight in those situations. There is no shame in that. So we need to think about the most common things that can cause sudden death in an otherwise healthy dog.

A very sudden death resulting in the dog passing in just a few minutes could suggest an electrical conduction problem in the heart. The signals that tell the heart to beat in the proper rhythm are blocked. There are a few causes of this, but the main point is the chambers of the heart can't pump in sync and you would probably need a defibrillator to change the outcome. You might get lucky with traditional CPR and it is worth doing but you probably wouldn't change the outcome of this event out in the field.

It is not likely that dogs have a heart attack like people do because dogs don't have the arterial blockages that we do. A stroke is somewhat of a possibility.

An aneurysm is again less likely in dogs than in people. So sudden heart failure due to a conduction disturbance would probably be the most likely issue. This would be even more likely if a necropsy did not show any obvious gross lesions.

Another cause of apparent sudden death in seemingly healthy dogs is internal blood loss due to bleeding of a tumor in the chest or abdomen. It is more common in my experience for these dogs to calmly pass away in the night, but they certainly could be running and have a crisis and pass. This might happen more slowly than some of the heart conduction problems.

These tumors commonly arise from the heart, liver and spleen. The tumors grow irregularly and crack open and leak blood, sometimes slowly and sometimes very quickly. If a tumor is located on the heart it may bleed and fill the pericardial sac. The blood accumulation outside the heart compresses the heart and does not allow enough blood to enter the heart and eventually circulation becomes worse and worse and the dog succumbs to very low blood pressure.

Running dogs in the late summer and early fall may expose them to deadly blue green algae. Dogs that have very recently had a drink from a stagnant pond would be at risk. Sometimes it can be seen that the water is obviously affected. Other dead animals may be noted in the area because algae toxin works very fast. To diagnose this issue, a water sample is needed to verify to presence of the algae.

There are also many other causes of death for hunting dogs including heat stroke and low blood sugar and seizures. These typically take longer to occur and have some common predisposing factors. And then the rest of the list of causes of sudden death is long and extensive and beyond the scope of this column.

I would like to add that the way to try to find a cause of death is to have the dog necropsied. Through necropsy we may find an obvious cause of death or we may still have questions and need to send samples off to a diagnostic lab for more specialized testing.

Occasionally we still don't get an absolute answer. I understand that it is a very personal choice whether to pursue a diagnosis once the dog has passed.

By John Holcomb, DVM

Contact Dr. Holcomb with your questions at
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Title Annotation:Veterinary Clinic
Author:Holcomb, John
Publication:Gun Dog
Date:Jul 26, 2017
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