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'Heartbroken' dog owners warn of pet danger from everyday snack bags

Christina Young kissed her dog, Petey, goodbye last week as she left for work, with no idea it would be the last time. She hopes her story will save other dogs.
/ Source: TODAY

Christina Young kissed her dog, Petey, goodbye last week as she left for work.

"But I had no idea it would be for the last time," Young wrote in a gut-wrenching Facebook post.

That night, Young's partner, Christian (his last name isn't given), was the first to come home from work, and "was surprised when Petey didn’t greet him at the door like usual," wrote Young.

Christian then found Petey dead, with his head inside an empty chip bag. It appeared that Petey had gotten the bag off a counter, and, while devouring its contents, the bag became sealed over his head and suffocated him.

"We will forever blame ourselves for leaving it out," Young wrote. "I feel we have an obligation to share what happened to Petey to hopefully prevent it from happening to any of your babies."

Bonnie Harlan knows all too well the pain that Young and her partner are experiencing — and the urge to help others in avoiding this same grief.

Dog owners warn of pet suffocation risk after tragic accident involving chip bag
Bonnie Harlan with her dog Blue, who died in 2011. Blue suffocated when his head became stuck in a chip bag. Harlan started an organization, Prevent Pet Suffocation, aimed at raising awareness about the suffocation danger of bags to pets.Courtesy of Bonnie Harlan

In 2011, Harlan's beloved dog Blue also died from suffocation after his head became stuck in a snack bag.

"It was just so devastating," Harlan, 61, told TODAY.

Soon after, Harlan started an organization called Prevent Pet Suffocation to raise awareness and provide support.

Dog owners warn of pet suffocation risk after tragic accident involving chip bag
Bonnie Harlan's son, Chase, cuddles with Blue.Courtesy of Bonnie Harlan

Harlan, who lives in Houston, said she usually hears from three or four people a week from all over the world who've lost their pets to suffocation in bags. Harlan shares these pets' photos and stories on the Prevent Pet Suffocation website and Facebook page.

Many of those who reach out tell Harlan they believed their pet had died in a freak accident until they discovered her organization and found community there.

"It's pretty prevalent," Harlan said, sadly.

Harlan's website has a lot of tips for how to avoid the danger that chip and other bags present to pets.

They include keeping all snack bags stored away in places your pet can't easily reach, only throwing away bags in trash cans with securely fastened lids and learning pet CPR in case your pet stops breathing.

Harlan also recommends serving chips in bowls instead of bags and then cutting up the bags once they are empty, not only to protect pets living in the home but also wildlife and stray animals that may later encounter the bags in trash cans or landfills.

And she's started an online petition asking Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, to put warning labels on snack bags.

All these efforts are aimed at ensuring other pet owners don't lose their animal companions to suffocation like she did with Blue. She feels hopeful that it's working and that word is getting out.

"Unfortunately, that's Blue's gift to the world," Harlan said.

Michael San Filippo, spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said he hasn't encountered solid data about how common it is for pets to die from suffocation in bags.

He said the AVMA has tended to be most concerned with what's inside the bag that could harm pets by causing stomach upset, "vomiting, diarrhea, things like that."

"Human foods can be particularly troublesome, as these foods aren’t formulated for dogs and can cause choking or poisoning dangers. For example, many foods contain the artificial sweetener xylitol, which is toxic to dogs and could be deadly," San Filippo said.

But to prevent death by suffocation, he agrees with Harlan to keep bags securely away from pets, and to cut or rip them up after using them "to eliminate the choking threat," he said. "We’ve seen the bags can be deadly."

Bonnie Harlan has another dog now. His name is Jag, and "of course I'm crazy about him, too," she said.

Harlan says she is extremely cautious when it comes to protecting Jag; she crates him when she isn't home to ensure the dog won't have access to the sorts of bags that killed Blue.

"You have to be vigilant," she said. "I look at everything as a potential enemy now."

Christina Young told the blog Love What Matters that she and Christian feel sadness, guilt and emptiness, "in our hearts and our home," since Petey's death.

Young said Petey taught them how to love; she said Petey made them "feel like a real family," and brought joy and laughter to every day of their lives.

"A friend told me something that I have been clinging to for comfort: ‘Dogs come into our lives to teach us how to love, and they depart from our lives to teach us about loss. And until you have loved a dog this way, part of your soul remains unawakened,’" Young said. "So, even though we are heartbroken, we are so thankful he was sent to us to awaken our souls completely."