La PORTE — Investigators believe a puppy was not the victim of an attacker last week as first suspected by family members, but may have suffocated after sticking its nose into a potato chip bag.
Such accidents are not uncommon, veterinarians and pet safety advocates say.
Police got involved last week when a family in the 1300 block of Federal Avenue reported someone had stolen their 5-month-old rescue dog.
Attempts to find the dog through social media and by speaking with neighbors and checking with local shelters were unsuccessful.
Police said family members found the dog two days later in an infrequently used room of the home with a bag over its head and injuries they thought showed it had been beaten.
With no information on a motive or possible suspects, investigators put out a call for help from the public.
By Tuesday, however, the case had turned.
“At this time we believe that the dog possibly escaped from its own cage and got its head stuck in a potato chip bag,” police said in a statement. “As the dog attempted to remove the bag from its head, it started to thrash around, causing some minor injuries.”
All Creature Features veterinarian Patrick Dorroh examined the dog at the request of Sgt. Brett Airy and found no serious injuries, although the animal did show signs of asphyxiation.
"It's something that happens more often than we might think," Dorroh said. "It can happen in any home if you're not aware of the danger."
Officials said the high profile of this case may heighten awareness among local pet owners.
“We would like to extend our deepest sympathy to the family who lost a family pet and hope this is a lesson for all local pet owners on the dangers of everyday items in their homes,” police said.
Bonnie Harlan of Houston has been trying for years to raise awareness about the issue.
She launched the not-for-profit organization Prevent Pet Suffocation Inc. after her 4-year-old rescue dog Blue died in 2012 after poking its head into a Frito Lay Cheetos bag.
“It’s very common,” Harlan said. “The problem is, people don’t know about it, and they don’t usually find out about it until it happens to their pet.”
Harlan said she hears of three or four new cases each week involving household pets who choke to death on food packaging.
The foundation’s website includes a memorial page where people have shared hundreds of photos about their pets. It also contains tips for prevention, links and other details.
Popcorn and chip bags appear to be the biggest risks, but pet-treat containers, cereal bags and other packaging have been implicated too. When a curious pet puts its head into the bag looking for crumbs, the bag can create a seal and cut off oxygen. Panic ensues, Harlan said, and the animal starts to run until it collapses and dies from asphyxiation.
A petition urging chip producer Frito Lay to put warning labels on its bags has grown to more than 12,000 signatures, she said, but pet owners must do their part by storing food packages away from animals and cutting up bags before disposing of them.
“I think a lot of people think it’s a freak accident, or they’re embarrassed about it, so they don’t mention it, but then they start researching it,” Harlan said.
Ninety percent of people who lost or almost lost a pet to suffocation were previously unaware of the danger, according to one estimate.
“Awareness is key,” Harlan said. “Maybe this family’s tragic story can help spread awareness.”
National Pet Suffocation Awareness Week starts Nov. 25.
More information: www.preventivevet.com/dogs/pet-suffocation-awareness or www.preventpetsuffocation.com.