The following is an expanded version of Item 8 on my “Top 10 Unique Things I’ve Done? list:

On occasion, a structure fire will take the life of the family dog. Depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary to examine the dog as well to determine whether it was alive at the time of the fire. The possibility exists that if foul play was involved the dog may have attempted to protect the homeowner and could have been incapacitated by the perpetrator before the fire was set. Fortunately, a dog can be examined much in the same way that a person can.

Any time a person is found dead at the scene of a fire, a key step in the investigation is to determine whether or not the person was alive before the fire ignited. Body location and position at the scene can suggest that the person made an attempt to exit the house. An external examination of the body while at the scene can also help determine if the person died as a result of the fire.

Any area of the skin that isn’t charred can be examined for a cherry pink discoloration, thus indicating the person inhaled a significant amount of carbon monoxide. Typically, the areas of the body that are best preserved are those areas that were against a second surface. Once the body is at the morgue, blood specimens are collected and tested to determine the exact concentration of carbon monoxide in the blood stream and whether or not the level was high enough to be fatal.

If the face is still intact, the mouth and nostrils can be examined for soot deposits. These deposits at the entrances of the airways suggest that the person was breathing during the fire. Being alive at the time of a fire is no doubt tragic for the deceased but a genuine relief for everyone involved in the investigation—it significantly reduces the likelihood that the fire was ignited to cover up evidence of foul play.

Smallest objects burn the fastest. That said, most of the dogs I’ve encountered have been so severely burned that it was basically impossible to recognize signs of carbon monoxide inhalation or soot deposits. I do however recall one occasion in which an exam proved useful.

The scene was a house fire where the body of an apparent female was found on the charred remains of her bed. It was presumed by fire investigators that the woman had either been overcome by fumes while in bed or had otherwise been incapacitated while in bed.

Fires are treated as suspicious until a cause for ignition is found. In most cases, I am called in fairly early on in the investigation so the cause is usually preliminary at best. In this particular case, fire investigators were initially concerned about the location of the woman. There appeared to be little that would have prevented the woman from getting out of the house. The bed was burned out from under the body so there was no protected area of the skin to examine for signs of carbon monoxide inhalation. The thermal injuries were too extensive to the face to find obvious soot deposits.

There was also a medium size dog found dead just inside the back door of the house. The fire damage was not as extensive in this area, so the dog was in pretty fair shape. The back door was also intact and there was no sign of forced entry present. I examined the dog as best I could. There didn’t appear to be any accumulation of blood under the dog and no signs of external trauma. The presence of soot deposits at the airways was hard to determine because of the nostrils’ size and color. The dog’s underbelly wasn’t especially pink, but as I rubbed the hair backwards, I could tell that the skin in other areas appeared to have a cherry pink tint.

If the dog had suffered a great deal of thermal damage, then the dog itself could have been brought to the morgue for a closer examination. At the very least, the dog’s exam would have included a carbon monoxide test and possibly an x-ray to rule out the presence of any projectiles.

My impression was that the dog was most likely alive at the time of the fire. If I had found evidence to the contrary, I would have been much more suspicious of the cause for the fire. Admittedly, this observation certainly wasn’t the final piece of the puzzle, but it did however provide some initial piece of mind for the fire investigators. Ultimately it would be the blood work that revealed high concentrations of carbon monoxide and confirmed the woman had in fact been overcome by fumes prior to her death. In the coming days, fire investigators ruled that the fire was accidental.

8 Responses to “”

  1. April 18, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    You really do have a gift for presenting, uh, difficult material in a temperate and oddly reassuring manner. This from a woman who stared at the floor during every driver’s ed class in high school and regrets the few times she dared to look up.

  2. April 19, 2005 at 1:23 am

    I have to admit that when I first saw your list I assumed that you were examined the dog for inhalation of cigarette or marijuana smoke!

  3. April 19, 2005 at 12:29 pm

    …….ok I am a couple of days late.. but back as usual for another wonderfully written installment of your very interesting profession.

  4. April 19, 2005 at 11:36 pm

    Well, I guess there are worse ways to go. At least when you’re overcome by fumes, you aren’t away of the rest of it.

  5. April 21, 2005 at 7:36 pm

    Very educational. You’re blogrolled.

  6. April 22, 2005 at 7:24 am

    Once again, thanks for the very enlightening peek under the curtain!

  7. April 25, 2005 at 8:39 am

    I’m just commenting to let you know I’m out here reading, thanks for some great inside info. I really dig it.

  8. November 4, 2006 at 8:51 am

    ty but i was hope for some help but i gess i said to mutch or not as mutch as i should have

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