Note to Reporters: This Pet Health column is part of a monthly public-education series written by Colorado State University veterinarians; it may be published in media outlets with credit to the author, Dr. Timothy B. Hackett.
Accidental poisoning is among the most common problems we see in emergency veterinary medicine, so it’s a good idea for pet owners to understand sources of toxicity, to take preventative steps, and to have a plan for response in case of ingestion.
Food, medications and household substances often seem perfectly harmless to us, yet are dangerous – and may even cause death – if eaten or inhaled by our pets. Even the most ardent dog lovers might not know about human food and household items that pose poisoning risks.
Dogs, in particular, are curious and like to chew – a combination that can lead to trouble.
Here are a few items among many that are toxic to pets and prompt emergency visits to Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital:
• Grapes and raisins
• Onions and garlic
• Macadamia nuts
• Products containing the sweetener xylitol, such as gum, toothpaste, gummy vitamins and candy
• High-salt foods and products, including ham, pretzels and homemade Play-Doh
• Coffee grounds
• Drugs, including prescription medications, marijuana edibles and illegal drugs
• Acetaminophen Acetominophen and pain relievers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The latter group includes aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. These drugs are sold over the counter under brand names Tylenol, Bayer, Advil and Aleve.
• Rodenticides designed to poison gophers, mice and rats
Cats may become very ill after ingesting lily plants, including species common in homes and gardens. These include Easter lilies, tiger lilies, Asiatic lilies and day lilies.
Small objects in your home – including pennies, batteries, small toys and even clothing – could harm your pet’s digestive tract or pose obstruction risks if eaten. We might joke about a friend’s dog that has chewed and swallowed socks, for instance. Yet the humor drains away when surgery is required for removal.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals runs an Animal Poison Control Center with a hotline that in 2013 handled about 180,000 cases. About 20 percent of the calls were from people worried about pets gobbling human medication, the society reported.
In many cases, pet owners suspect potential poisoning when they find an empty bag, wrapper or bottle, or if they witness ingestion of something hazardous.
Pets also exhibit symptoms of toxicity. These include: vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, racing heart rate, breathing trouble, pale or discolored gums, high temperature, seizures, weakness or physical collapse. These symptoms are wide-ranging, typically the result of neurologic problems, gastrointestinal distress, internal bleeding, kidney failure or liver failure.
Because symptoms are so variable, it’s crucial to be aware of your pet’s normal behavior and to question the cause of abnormal behavior, just as you would for a human family member.
Unfortunately, cases of malicious pet poisoning sometimes arise. For instance, someone left meatballs laced with rat poison at a park north of Boulder last spring; three dogs reportedly needed veterinary attention as a result. Though such cases are uncommon, they provide a reminder to keep an eye on pet behavior and health.
Treatment measures include the following:
• Support of vital functions: Intravenous fluids, anticonvulsants, oxygen and blood transfusions are some of the measures that might be needed.
• Administration of specific antidotes, if available.
• Veterinarians often remove as much of the poison as possible by inducing vomiting, pumping the stomach, and providing an absorbent medication to bind chemicals in the intestinal tract.
• Patients that have ingested poisons that affect the kidneys – including grapes, raisins, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antifreeze – will receive aggressive IV fluid support to help dilute the agent and encourage loss through the urine.
• Many bait poisons meant for mice and rats inhibit normal blood clotting. Poisoned animals will begin to bleed internally within five days of ingestion. Blood and plasma transfusions can replace lost blood cells and proteins to help restore normal clotting. A vitamin antidote will also be dispensed to help counteract the effect of the poison.
• Patient care often is supportive: meant to control symptoms and provide 24-hour monitoring until the pet slowly recovers.
Here are key steps for poison response and prevention:
• If you think your pet has ingested something toxic, act fast in seeking veterinary help. Know that ingesting even a small amount of a poison might endanger your pet.
• Don’t wait for symptoms to appear because some toxic substances, like mouse and rat poisons, might circulate in your pet’s body for three to five days before you see signs.
• Program your veterinarian’s emergency telephone number into your cellphone, and keep the number posted in a central place in your home. That might be on the refrigerator, a bulletin board or by your home phone. Make sure your children, other family members, babysitter or pet sitter know where to find this emergency number.
• If an emergency visit is needed, provide all the information you can about what you pet has ingested and when. Take wrappers, packages or medication bottles with you.
• Understand that dogs like to devour. So put up, lock up and close off potential toxins. In the case of marijuana edibles – increasingly common in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is newly legal – be sure to stash the stash. Don’t forget the kitchen trash can, which might contain any number of potentially hazardous items.
• Understand that stressful times – such as a household move, introduction of a new pet, the comings and goings of the holidays – might be the very time that your docile dog becomes a counter jumper and for the first time snags and chows something toxic. These are good times to clear counters and tabletops!
Dr. Timothy Hackett is director of Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. He is a specialist in veterinary emergency and critical care.