Causes Of Sudden Death In Australian Pets

Updated November 28, 2020

I’ve been a vet for a quarter century now. Over that time I’ve seen just about everything go wrong that can.

Pet disasters tend to go along recurring themes. If you know what they are, you have an excellent chance to avoid them. Some might be upsetting, but I hope you can see the benefit in thinking about them now.

Dog Attack

One of the biggest causes of sudden death in dogs is the person who lives in denial of how dangerous their dog is to other dogs. They keep using off leash environments even though the warning signs are there. Often, these dogs and people are repeat offenders.

We all know them. You hear them say things like:

  • “He’s only playing” (if that’s true, why do you need to tell me?)
  • “Now be nice” (why are you saying this?)
  • “He’s never done that before” (unlikely to say the least)

This time of year we also see more dog attacks when relatives or friends get together with their dogs. It could be at a barbecue or Christmas lunch, or perhaps while a friend looks after your dog when you’re away. The mixture of unfamiliar dogs and inattention can be explosive.

If that’s not all, last week I saw a dog badly attacked by another dog while being boarded at their breeder. Yes, I know good dog boarding kennels can look like prisons, but bad things seldom happen there.

Rabbits and chickens kept outside are at great risk of fox attack anywhere in Adelaide. As anyone who tries to keep chickens without a coop learns.

Snake Bite

Snake bite is a threat to dogs mainly because their owners don’t see it coming. All of my favourite Adelaide dog walks have snakes in warm weather, yet I always see dogs a long way from their owners whenever I go. Anytime you let your dog off, even in a strange yard, you should always think, “could there be a snake?”

Cats in Australia are at highest risk of snakebite if they have outside access and live near open spaces like the river, parklands or vacant blocks. You can read a lot more about dogs, cats & snakes here.

Chocolate Poisoning

Look at our rates of dog poisonings and you’ll see that chocolate is the greatest problem. Here’s what we hear:

  • “I didn’t think he went there”
  • “I can’t believe he stole it”
  • “I forgot it was in my handbag”
  • “The cupboard was left open”
  • “I didn’t know it was inside that Christmas present”

I’ve written a whole page on chocolate poisoning but here’s a quick summary: it’s most dangerous to smaller dogs and when it’s darker or better quality. Keep it in a secure place, just like you would any hazardous substance. Like medicines for example!

Human Medicines

Again this mainly concerns dogs, in two situations:

  1. Dogs that watch you take a pill every day think it’s a treat and often pounce on any you drop
  2. Some idiot thought it would be a good idea to put a sugary coating on ibuprofen tablets

Be careful by storing medicines securely and taking your own in private. And if any get eaten, come straight down so we can make them come straight up again.

Bin Raiding

Here’s a list of the things we’ve had to remove from pets:

  • Cooked bones (dogs, cats, ferrets)
  • Meat skewers and wrapping (dogs, cats)
  • Corn cobs (dogs)
  • Fruit stones (dogs)
  • Underwear & hygiene products (some dogs)

Nearly all of these were either put in an insecure bin or left where pets could find them. If your bin’s getting raided, don’t wait. While not strictly a cause of sudden death, intestinal foreign bodies can kill within days.

Car Accidents

I know vets who think that good yard fencing has been the single greatest advance in dog health. These days a common story is a gate that gets left open. Sometimes it’s a tradesperson, sometimes it’s during home theft, but often it just needed maintenance.

As a vet who sees the consequences, I’m also very careful about when and where I let my dogs off leash. Once you do it, you’ve lost the most important level of protection you have. All your dog has to do is see another dog across the road.

Extendable leads are particularly dangerous. Anyone who’s used one knows how easily dogs can run onto roads. Other problematic areas are children walking dogs without adults and pets not restrained properly in cars.

A trap that even experienced dog owners fall into is the collar that’s too loose. If it can be pulled over the head then all a dog has to do is get a fright and they can back out of it. I have seen several dogs get hit this way after being startled by traffic noises.

To prevent car injuries and deaths in cats, they should be in after dark at very least. That’s when most car accidents occur. Of course, being an indoors cat or having an enclosed outdoor run is even better.


Just the other day I got a fright when Loki fell in our pool. Luckily I was there because he can’t swim. Dogs not being able to swim are a lot more common than people think.

Even if a dog can swim, the pool cover often gets in the way, or they don’t swim to the steps. Very few dogs can get up and over the pool edge.

When Loki was a puppy I put extra fencing up. If he could have swum I also would have trained him where the steps were or submerged a ramp. He fell in recently because big pool toys had been left out that he couldn’t walk around, and the pool cover wasn’t on properly. However, I probably should never have taken that fencing down.


There’s no level of safety good enough for something that’s actually intended to kill. A poison made to be eaten by snails or rats is just as attractive to a dog. Cats even get poisoned by eating poisoned animals.

I believe the risks are too great to ever use animal poisons if we have pets.

Fertiliser Poisoning

It might come as a surprise to learn that dogs like fertiliser. Not so surprising when you learn that it’s often made from chook poo or animal products. The same goes for compost made from food waste.

Both are highly toxic and can cause serious illness or kill. Easy to prevent by storing them securely and always digging them well in. I also exclude the dogs for a day or two afterwards.

Heat Stroke

If people didn’t sweat, I don’t think dogs would ever get heat stroke. We wouldn’t stand there completely unaware that our dogs are getting hotter and hotter.

Anything over 26 degrees is too hot for a dog to run around for very long. Anything over 35 and they need a cool place to rest. Even less for flat-faced and long-haired dogs.

Most deaths occur when people keep throwing the ball just because the dog keeps chasing it. As I’ve said before, dogs don’t know when to stop.

Take water with you on warm days but also make sure the water supply at home can’t run out or be knocked over. And consider clipping dogs with thick coats.


Canine parvovirus is present nearly everywhere as a contaminant of public spaces. Here in Adelaide we see sporadic disease year-round with a strong seasonal peak in December.

Parvo in Australia has been shown to be more common in disadvantaged communities (source) which are often the least able to afford the veterinary care needed for survival. Vaccines are an extremely effective protection.

Regional Hazards

Everything so far is relevant to Adelaide, but for the last I’ll go national. Here are some examples:

  • Paralysis ticks in eastern Australia
  • Poisonous toads in northern Australia
  • Puffer fish and sea hares on beaches
  • 1080 baits in farmland and national parks
  • Grape ‘marc’ in wine producing areas
  • Local disease outbreaks

How do you know what to look out for in your area? Simple! Ask your vet.

To finish, I want to share with you the state of mind of a vet when it comes to preventing dangers. I call it…

Keeping Two Degrees Of Separation

Allow for human error. Everything dangerous to your pet should be separated by two levels of protection. There should be a backup for everything that could cause serious harm.

Here are just a few bad examples:

  • The chocolate that’s only protected by a cupboard door
  • The water bowl that can be tipped over
  • The gate that’s easy to leave open

Solutions are usually simple, cheap, and a whole lot better than the alternative. They just take someone to ask, “what could go wrong here?”

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.