Who knew that an elephant could drink a gallon of paint and survive the experience none the worse for wear?
Steven R. Hansen, DVM, Dipl. ABVT, head of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center, knew. Luckily the paint was lead free and the only damage was cosmetic; elephants are not the tidiest imbibers of liquid refreshment.
“The elephant was really a mess,” Dr. Hansen recalls.
While the tale of the painted pachyderm ended happily, it began with the same urgency and concern as most of the several thousand calls that pour into the center annually.
Typically, it’s the curious Labrador that gulps human prescription medication or the cat that chews the Easter lilies, a deadly snack if the animal is left untreated. The historic flood of calls during last year’s pet-food recall was unusually mammoth, but still there was a universal urgency to each: What should I do?
Calmly but quickly responding to each and every one with expert advise is what Hansen’s team of veterinary toxicologists do 24/7 from their offices on the campus of the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, and was the sort of work for which Hansen was honored in February at the annual Show Dogs Awards.
"Veterinary medicine used to treat animal poisonings like the poor stepchild of veterinary medicine,” says Marty Becker, DVM, resident veterinarian on ABC TV's “Good Morning America,” host of "The Pet Doctor" on PBS and the author of 14 pet books.
“Dr. Steve Hansen and his team changed all of that. They brought proven protocols to bear, advanced the science of preventing and treating animal poisoning, and did it with competence, confidence and compassion.”
During the pet-food recall, Hansen’s team distilled vast and varied data, reports and toxicological science into short and accurate updates for both veterinarians and pet owners. Not all crises are the stuff of national headlines, though.
Sometimes zookeepers call. Staff once guided by telephone the treatment of a chimp in Cameroon that knocked back a jug of kerosene. The chimp survived. On occasion, there’s a sad event, as when the center helped solve the mystery of a panda death at the National Zoo. (The cause was gopher poison.) But the bulk of its work is for the cat or dog whose domestic habitat is increasingly filled with potential dangers.
“It’s hard to think about practicing veterinary medicine without [the staff at the Animal Poison Control Center],” says John Abel, DVM, who runs a small-animal practice near Chicago.
Veterinarians would have to plant their noses in pharmaceutical journals all day long to keep up with the human medicines in homes today, not to mention new household, yard and garden products, Dr. Abel notes. If treatment is needed, the center has the best plan at its fingertips. Even better, if the substance turns out to be innocuous, the animal and family are spared invasive or expensive over-treatment, Abel says.
“It would be impossible for a practicing vet to keep up with all the information as they do. We can’t always be sure of what’s toxic and what’s not,” Abel says.
Hansen knows the feeling.
He once was on the other end of the line, as a practicing veterinarian treating a Labrador–of course–that had chewed up a new brand of rat poison that caused a wholly different set of symptoms than older poison formulas. The center already knew about the stuff, the best treatment was prescribed and the dog survived.
“At that point I realized how important it was to get that information out quickly,” he says. “I’m sure it had a lot to do with how and why I ended up back here a few years later.”
Hansen’s career path did not lead directly to ASPCA, however. Before joining the center, he was the director of veterinary research and support for Wellmark Intl. He joined the ASPCA Poison Control center in 1997, after the founder, Dr. William Buck, retired and the center was acquired by the ASPCA from the University of Illinois. Hansen, who says he was long drawn to the puzzle-solving element of toxicology, had studied under Buck, completing a residency program in veterinary toxicology and earning a master’s in veterinary medical science from the University of Illinois. He considered the move a great honor.
“I felt extremely privileged to take over the program he had started,” says Hansen, who says Buck was a personal mentor and a pioneering toxicologist.
In the last decade, the center has increased its staff, built a database and library, gone to a fee-for-use payment program and created a user-friendly website that serves both veterinarians and pet owners. Links to professional toxicology articles and studies are offered, along with prevention and education information for pet owners.
Need a client to understand why it’s not a good idea to pop Fido a little Motrin or give Fluffy a glow stick toy? The explanations are there, along with a list of top toxic plants and even an interactive game for kids called “Cooper the Careful Canine” that invites players to clean up a cyber house littered with nasty pet perils.
As the veterinarian behind it all, Hansen says he is not often on the phones these days, but he still gets pulled in to consult when a situation escalates, is particularly complicated or involves legal issues. Hansen manages the ASPCA Midwest Office, which along with the poison program includes the Animal Behavior Center, Counseling Services, the Knowledge Management Center, the Animal Product Safety Service, the Pet Nutrition and Science Advisory Service and related expert consulting services.
Still, toxicology is his passion.
“We really believe we make a difference every day,” Hansen says. “We receive hundreds of phone calls every day and a significant number of those are about dogs and they are in trouble. So when our veterinarian toxicologists can answer quickly–thanks to a great technical team that builds database tools and mines data–our staff can help quickly, and that’s exciting.”
The model for the Poison Control Center has been so successful, Hansen is planning to expand it to the ASPCA Animal Behavior Center, also under his management. Plans are under way to build an educational website that would also be a “behavior lifeline” and online database that professionals and pet owners could tap. It would not have the same 24/7 staff so critical to the emergency work of the poison center. But its clients may not be so very different, Hansen says.
“Behavior problems are the most common reasons dogs end up in shelters. But it’s also a common reason behind poisoning. That dog with separation anxiety is going to get himself in trouble. Today, he screws up the kitchen rug.
Tomorrow, maybe he discovers Grandma’s seven-day pill minder and eats it.”
The good news is that either way, Hansen’s team will be ready to take the call.