By Carol McCarthy
Things that are harmless to us but toxic to pets lurk in the most mundane places: the kitchen, medicine cabinet, garage, backyard and beyond. “Pets – dogs in particular – are amazingly good at finding and exposing themselves to poisons wherever they occur. Pet parents need to become ‘toxin detectives’ and discover these hazards before pets find them,” says Dr. Lynn Rolland Hovda, director of veterinary services, SafetyCall International and the Pet Poison Helpline. However, when it is too late for prevention, the best route to a happy ending is early intervention, notes Dr. Brett Levitzke, medical director at the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group (VERG) in Brooklyn, N.Y.
We’ve rounded up a thorough guide to common toxins to show how they can harm your pet and what you can do to keep your pet safe.
Many foods we find delicious are harmful to animals. That’s why it is important to keep people food away from hungry hounds and famished felines, especially if they are counter surfers or trash can commandos.
We might love chocolate, but it can kill dogs and is one of the 20 most-reported poisonings. Chocolate contains theobromine, which causes heart arrhythmias and can be toxic in small amounts. Toxicity levels vary depending on the size of the dog and how dark the chocolate is: Baking chocolate and unsweetened cocoa powder are most harmful, followed by milk and white chocolate. Common signs of poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea and restlessness. Treatment may include induced vomiting, administering activated charcoal to bind the poison and IV fluids.
This sugar-free sweetener is used in many supermarket staples: gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, peanut butter and baking products. Xylitol can cause dangerous levels of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and liver failure in dogs. Signs include collapsing, seizures and vomiting. Check product labels for xylitol and keep items stored safely away from your animals. If you suspect poisoning, call your vet or animal poison control center immediately. Treatment may include induced vomiting and IV fluids.
Even when eaten in small amounts, yeast in dough keeps rising as a mass in your pet’s warm stomach and can cause it to distend dangerously. As the dough ferments in the gut, alcohol toxicity also can occur. Fatal cardiac arrest is another possibility. Signs include a distended abdomen and retching followed by loss of coordination and slowed breathing. Treatment may include induced vomiting or, sometimes, surgery.
While the toxin is unknown, these small fruits can cause big problems for dogs. “ANY amount, even one grape, can cause renal (kidney) failure,” Levitzke says. Signs include loss of appetite, lethargy, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. Treatment includes induced vomiting (1-3 hours after consumption), charcoal, IV fluids, kidney monitoring and in severe cases, dialysis.
This popular vegetable—as well as other members of the Allium family (onions, leeks and shallots)—is harmful to cats and dogs whether fresh, cooked or dried. In large amounts, red blood cell damage can cause anemia in cats. Signs include lethargy, reddish urine, diarrhea and vomiting. Treatment in severe cases includes IV fluids and oxygen.
Thriving houseplants and bountiful gardens beautify our surroundings, but if you have pets, be careful about what you grow.
These lovely flowers are extremely poisonous to cats, and eating just 1-2 leaves, biting a stem or ingesting pollen or vase water can kill your feline friend. Tiger, Day, Asiatic and Easter lilies can cause severe kidney damage. “It’s very time sensitive,” Levitzke says. “If you see ingestion, get them to the doctor right away. Don’t wait for vomiting to begin.” Common signs include drooling, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. Aggressive treatment, including hospital admission with kidney monitoring, IV fluids and charcoal supplements, is often necessary.
This holiday staple takes the rap as being deadly to pets, but the risk is exaggerated. Although its sap contains substances that can cause drooling, diarrhea and skin irritation, the poinsettia is not as toxic as commonly believed.
Some common plants – including Elephant’s Ear, Philodendron and Chinese Evergreen – are poisonous to cats and dogs. Signs include drooling, oral pain, pawing at the mouth, vomiting and poor appetite. Treatment includes a calcium-containing neutralizer, such as milk, or a vet-prescribed antihistamine, anti-inflammatory or antacid.
American Holly contains saponins, which are poisonous to dogs, cats and horses if they eat the leaves or berries, but toxicity is low. Signs include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, depression or mouth irritation from spiny leaves.
Lycorine and other alkaloids found in daffodils (also known as narcissus and jonquils) can sicken dogs, cats and horses. Bulbs are particularly poisonous. Signs include severe vomiting, drooling and diarrhea. Ingestion of large amounts can cause convulsions, low blood pressure, tremors and cardiac arrhythmia. Seek immediate veterinary attention if your pet consumes daffodils.
Always be careful how you store and use even common household staples, as many can sicken and even kill your pets.
Some household cleaners and fabric softeners contain substances that can irritate or corrode tissue in a pet’s mouth and stomach. Clean up any spills immediately and keep used fabric softener sheets away from cats. Signs of trouble include drooling, pawing at the affected area, lack of appetite, mouth sores, vomiting, lethargy and difficulty breathing. Prompt veterinary care is needed. “Be sure to bring the detergent container with you to the veterinary hospital, as different compounds can require different treatments,” Levitzke notes.
Most automotive and other types of antifreeze contain ethylene glycol, which causes acute and fatal kidney failure in dogs and cats. Signs include drooling, vomiting, appearing to be drunk, seizures, excessive thirst and urination followed by dehydration, elevated heart rate and difficulty breathing. “Even tiny amounts may be poisonous, and early veterinary care is needed for survival,” Hovda says. Treatment requires aggressive IV fluid therapy and dialysis.
If your dog bites or eats a battery, he can suffer severe corrosive injuries to the mouth and esophagus. Do NOT induce vomiting because corrosive substances can burn the esophagus. Immediately flush out your dog’s mouth and take him to a veterinary emergency room. Surgery may be needed.
Wood and construction glues containing diisocyanate are dangerous to dogs and cats if ingested. Even a small glob expands massively in the stomach. Signs include drooling, loss of appetite, distended stomach, retching and vomiting. Surgery is often necessary.
Pet poisonings from products used to kill rats and mice are common because dogs and cats can easily access these toxins in the home, garage, yard or parks. Products contain different active ingredients and come in various forms (pellets, grains, baits) and colors (blue, green, tan, red). If the label says it is an anti-coagulant and Vitamin K is the antidote, then the product will cause internal bleeding. Accurately identifying the active ingredient is imperative to proper treatment. Signs include bruising and bleeding. Call a pet poison hotline immediately if you believe your pet has ingested a rodenticide. Induced vomiting (within 1-3 hours of consumption) addresses mild cases, but severe ones can require transfusions of plasma and red blood cells.
Some of the medications that we take to help us feel better can make our pets feel awful or even kill them. Be sure to store medicines securely away from areas where your pet could get into them. “Pets often gain access to [medications] from open purses or backpacks as well as those left on bedside stands,” Hovda notes.
These painkillers can be lethal to your pets and should never be given without consulting your vet. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage and failure, and ibuprofen and naproxen may cause stomach irritation, ulcers and kidney failure. Signs of a serious problem include lack of appetite, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. Call your vet or pet poison control center immediately. Treatment includes induced vomiting (1-3 hours after consumption) and IV fluids.
These medicine cabinet standbys often contain dextromethorphan, which can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness and drowsiness. They can be safe for your pet only if given under your vet’s direction. Don’t give any cough medicine containing acetaminophen/NSAIDS, alcohol, caffeine or an antihistamine.
Medications to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) contain stimulants (amphetamines and methylphenidate) that can harm your pet, even in small amounts. Signs include tremors, agitation, panting, seizures and elevated heart rate. Treatment includes IV fluids, sedation, heart and blood pressure monitoring.
Human anti-depressants can quickly cause sedation and incoordination in pets, or alternatively, agitation and aggression. Signs often are not severe but a high dose can cause seizures and changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Treatment includes sedation, IV fluids and temperature, heart rate and blood pressure monitoring.
Most dogs and cats enjoy licking lotions, ointments and other topical remedies off your skin or any surface they are spilled on. Ingestion can cause stomach upset. Keep all such items stored safely and don’t let your pet lick you if you have treated your skin with any topical products.
Curiosity can kill the cat—and the dog—if they nose around an animal whose bite or venom is poisonous.
The bite of this spider releases a potent neurotoxin that causes severe muscle pain and cramping, blood pressure fluctuation, difficulty breathing and sudden paralysis. Keep living quarters clean and check animal beds often to help prevent infestation. Treatment includes IV fluids, muscle relaxants, anti-seizure medications, pain relievers and oxygen. An anti-venom also is available.
These colorful reptiles are found primarily in the Southern U.S., from Texas to Florida. They are reclusive by nature; therefore, bites are uncommon. But a bite from a coral snake releases a potent neurotoxin that paralyzes most muscles groups and causes respiratory failure in pets. The most common sign is severe swelling of the face or hind limbs. Get immediate veterinary attention following a suspected bite. The anti-venom is in short supply and is often unavailable.
These curious reptiles are found in many regions of the U.S., and their bites can be deadly. Signs include abnormal breathing, bruising and bleeding in bite area, airway swelling, low blood pressure and organ failure. Immediate veterinary attention is necessary. Treatment includes IV fluids, pain medication, wound care and anti-venom.
The only truly venomous scorpion found in North America is the Arizona bark scorpion, which lives primarily in Arizona and New Mexico. Signs of a bite include drooling, incoordination and seizures. In most cases, treat the sting form a scorpion as you would a bee sting, providing local pain relief, and observe your pet for any larger reaction. Cats, however, can develop tremors, agitation and breathing issues. An anti-venom is available.
Certain amphibians release a potentially fatal toxin when stressed, such as when a dog mouths or bites them. The Colorado River toad and Marine (Cane) toad, found in parts of the Southern U.S., are common perpetrators. Signs of exposure include severe and immediate drooling, crying and pawing at the mouth followed by difficulty breathing, cardiac abnormalities, seizures and collapse. Get immediate treatment, especially for animals exposed to the Marine toad.
The bottom line is that hazards to your pet abound, so take measures to prevent exposure to dangerous substances and be alert for symptoms or behaviors that could indicate poisoning. However, many signs of poisoning mirror common, less-serious illnesses, so your first action should be to call an animal poison center immediately if you think your pet has been exposed to a toxin (Pet Poison Helpline, 855-764-7661, 24-hours a day). “The doctors at the pet poison hotlines are specifically trained in toxicology. They have the best advice,” says Levitzke.