DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. - The beautiful 5-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named "Buster" died in late November.
He left behind his four-legged mate Molly, and his grieving owners, Nick Varallo and his wife Mari.
"Buster was one of the friendliest dogs you'll ever meet, everyone was his friend," said Nick.
Varallo says Buster died after eating leaves from an Oleander plant growing behind the couple's fifth wheel, parked at Almar Acres in Desert Hot Springs.
The part-time desert resident says he and his wife have spent the past four winters at the park.
While aware of the threat the poisonous Oleander posed to his animals, Varallo says he never thought the dogs would eat the plant and does not know what prompted both dogs to chew the plant.
"It has been very devastating. I'm amazed that I can make it through this interview without breaking down. It has been very hard," said Varallo.
Varallo says he allowed the dogs to briefly go out to their patio area, and that's when both dogs started to "chomp" on the plant.
Moments later, both dogs were drooling excessively, and Varallo rushed the animals to a vet in Indio.
The vet examined the animals and says Molly did not eat as much as Buster.
"My biggest fear right now is that somebody else is going to lose their pet from this same cause," said Varallo.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) says the number of cases of dogs, like Buster, experiencing Oleander toxicosis is "extremely rare", and deaths are "even less common". The plant is bitter, and not usually eaten in large enough quantities to be an issue for dogs.
The agency reports 764 cases of dogs experiencing sickness after eating the plant, and in seven of those cases, the dog died.
Palm Desert veterinarian Dr. Lillian Roberts says she saw about one case a year when she worked at a desert emergency clinic.
"The faster you get them to the vet, the better. I can't overemphasize that," said Dr. Roberts.
If you are a pet owner concerned about the threat posed by Oleander, Dr. Roberts says simply remove the plant. She also said to keep a close eye on your pet if they are likely to pick up and chew things.
Also, if you suspect your dog has eaten Oleander, Roberts says to quickly report it to your vet, so they can prepare treatment, and then take your animal to the vet so they can induce vomiting and monitor the dog's heart.
Not wanting Buster's death to be in vain, Nick says he is starting a campaign he calls "Buster's Legacy", aimed at banning Oleander plants in all desert cities, to prevent similar animal deaths in the future.
With the plant so common throughout the desert. He could be facing an uphill battle.
However, at least one city has already adopted an Oleander ban.
Norco, in western Riverside County, adopted a ban to protect the community's large horse population from the poisonous plant.
"I really want to get the word out about the dangers of this plant," said Varallo.
Varallo tells us he has set up a GoFundMe account to raise money to help pay for his campaign aimed at banning Oleander plants. You can find that link here.
At least two humans have died as a result of eating from an Oleander plant.
Two toddlers in El Segundo died in June, 2000 after eating the plant.
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