Westminster Dog Show: Competitor's Death Leaves Owner, Handler Suspicious

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The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show that earlier this month made headlines by crowning an affenpinscher as Best in Show for the first time ever, is back in the headlines today after the unexpected death of another competitor.

Cruz, a 3-year-old Samoyed who competing in his first Westminster this year, died Feb. 16 while competing in another dog show in Colorado -- just four days after the Westminster competition ended. Both the dog's co-owner, Lynette Blue, and his handler, Robert Chaffin, suspect the dog was poisoned.

"We have gone through all the steps of where he was, what was done, and he was always on a leash," Blue, 67, who has co-owned Cruz since birth and has raised and shown the fluffy, snow-white breed of dogs since the 1960s, told ABC News today. "He was never outside. He was always with the handler."

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Cruz, short for his show name, GCH CH Polar Mist Cruz'N T'Party At Zamosky D, was competing at the 18th Annual Rocky Mountain Cluster Dog Show in Denver when he became sick, vomiting blood. Chaffin, his handler of over one year, who was also at the Westminster, took him to an emergency veterinary clinic, where he later died of internal hemorrhaging. The dog was cremated and a necropsy was not performed.

"We can't figure out a timeline where it could have happened while he was in the room or being walked," said Blue, who said she had no insurance policy on Cruz.

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The internal hemorrhaging, along with vomiting blood, could be a symptom of rodenticide, or rat poisoning, according to medical experts.

Blue said the manager of the hotel where the Cruz and Chaffin stayed in New York told her the facility does not use rat poisoning. The dog, who was ranked seventh in the nation among Samoyeds, according to Grand Championship Points issued by the American Kennel Club, was also not walked outside or in any of the city's parks, Blue said, which could have been sprayed with rat poison during his stay in New York.

But according to Dr. Tony Johnson, a clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cruz's symptoms of internal bleeding and eventual death could also be attributed to natural causes such as cancer.

"Two of the things that will cause bleeding in the abdomen are cancer and rat poisoning and people often attribute it to poisoning as opposed to cancer," he said. "We see a lot of dogs that have bleeding in their abdomen due to cancer so that is a possibility."

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Johnson added that it is "not an uncommon scenario" for an animal to not have an autopsy done, "but in the absence of a toxicology or pathology report," as in Cruz's case, "it becomes speculation," he said.

Blue said the only time Cruz was not being watched by Chaffin while in New York was when the dog was "benched" at Westminster, a time when the dogs are required to stay in an assigned area with other owners and breeders.

Cruz's handler, Chaffin, whom Blue says she "absolutely" does not suspect was involved in Cruz's death, is convinced that the dog was poisoned and said there was a four-hour window during which the dog could have been poisoned, but not by a competitor. Instead, Chaffin said he is suspicious of an animal rights activist he encountered at the dog show who "was just scowling at me and telling me how cruel I was."

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