Don't 'Tase' the matter what Taser Inc. says

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Oct. 8, 2009
Don't 'Tase' the matter what Taser Inc. says

It never fails. I write a column that mentions a product––no matter how innocently––and the corporations inevitably come out to get me.

This time I happened to address the obvious: Carrying a Taser stun gun to prevent dog attacks in puppy park settings is a bad idea. Dogs have been known to die. Unfortunately, I phrased it like this: “Though [Tasers are] considered relatively safe for humans, they’re often deadly for dogs. Don’t even think about it.”

Before you say it, you don’t have to tell me: I should know better by now. There was no good reason to say “often deadly for dogs” instead of “can be deadly to dogs.” It would have made all the difference between a lawyer who has to sit on her hands and take it and one that gets to write an annoying letter to my editor at the Miami Herald.

What was I thinking?

As I wrote this, I actually recall thinking that Tasers have not exactly been proven safe in humans. No matter how many young and healthy police officers “tase” themselves to prove their safety, everyone’s far from agreed that Tasers are safe. People have died, after all. About 450 in North America according to one source. Nonetheless, “considered relatively safe in humans” would keep me out of trouble, I surmised.

Wrong. Because it seems that should Tasers fall out of favor due to the potential for human lethality, the company’s backup marketing plan might involve arming every single UPS driver and Postal Service employee with a Taser to protect them against dog attacks.

By my measure, Taser people seem headed in this direction already. Though they’re not directly marketing their product for use against animals, they are backing down ever so slightly on their Taser-is-100%-safe-in-humans claim by issuing new guidelines urging users to aim away from the victim’s chest when firing the weapon. And, of course, they’re also going after animal people like me when we step beyond the limits of irrefutability. It seems like a safe bet, then, that Taser’s actively looking to the dog market. Otherwise, why bother with me

Now, back to solving my predicament:

Dear Taser: Want me to write a clarification? I’ll do it. I’ll admit I was wrong in my phrasing. I cannot support the claim that dogs “often” die. But that doesn’t mean you’ll ever convince me a Taser is safely used against them. Nor does my emphatic opinion waver: A Taser has no place in a dog park.

This was Monday. After this exchange I was curious. How safe are Tasers when used against dogs? Because if this is the wave of the future, we all deserve to know, right?

A [very] brief search uncovered three media reports of dog deaths related to the use of a Taser (all in large-ish dogs). Yet it’s impossible to know whether this represents a larger percentage of Taser deaths than for humans. Thankfully, it seems we haven’t yet electrocuted enough animals to know. 

Here's what we do know:

While PETA claims Tasers are tested on pigs, bulls and horses, provides anecdotal reports on using Tasers safely and effectively against pit bulls. Problem is, all the dogs involved in the reported events were presumably larger animals than, say, a French bulldog...or a Maltese. Notably, one young Chihuahua was reported to have survived a Taser gun’s wrath. But those who know Chihuahuas will also appreciate the unfair advantage conferred by Chihuahuadom.

So it was that I was unsure how to proceed with my investigation. That’s when I called a veterinary cardiologist of my acquaintance (who preferred to remain nameless, pointedly asking that I not ensnare him in my anti-corporate crusading web). I asked the obvious:

If ventricular fibrillation is the leading cause of death in Taser incidents and if the threshold for this deadly arrhythmia is lower in smaller sized animals, does it not stand to reason that the use of a Taser against a dog might be unsafe? Proving safety would require the company to “tase” lots of little dogs along with big ones given the species’ incredible variability in size. Or maybe they would just “tase” lots of baby pigs. Does this make sense?

After my wandering line of questioning, this specialist probably thought I was as crazy as a loon. But he agreed. You can’t prove a negative until you test it. And yes, ventricular fibrillation is more easily achieved by electrocution if you’re a small animal. Same goes for small humans. Taser International would never claim 100% safety in a human infant so why would they claim the same for our veterinary version: a Yorkiepoo?

That’s as far as I got with him.

To be honest, I believe the Taser issue to be profoundly disturbing on the human front––far more so than I previously understood it to be. After all, we tend to perceive the victims of deadly Taser incidents as drug-addled criminals intent on “death by cop”...or perhaps as cardiologically unsound individuals who have no business committing crimes in their condition. But criminality and drug use are beside the point in these cases––that is, if the Taser is intended as a safe alternative to guns.

Sure, it’s argued that even a lowly kitchen knife can kill a dog or a human more effectively than a Taser. But you’d be more likely to wield a pretty pink Taser against your neighbor’s charging dog than your set of stainless Henckels. Because if you thought it wouldn’t cause irreparable harm, using a Taser to break up a dog fight or keep your neighbor’s dog from biting your ankles as you bike might actually make sense.

Ultimately, however, I can’t get behind the notion of a “safe” Taser. Not when dogs have already died. If the idea is to supplant deadly force with disability whenever possible I agree it’s a laudable goal. But that means each and every time you use this weapon you’ve got to be prepared for the worst. And, somehow, I don’t see that as a ringing endorsement for packing voltage at the puppy park.


Patty Khuly, DVM


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