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Common Toxins to Avoid in Pets

Last week, we discussed common human food and drink products that are not safe for pets. This week, we look at the most common non-food/drink products that can be highly toxic to your dog or cat.

The Pet Doc is our column for pet owners and pet lovers alike. Each week, Dr. Kane will discuss health and environmental issues that affect your pet. If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Kane by clicking "email the author," and he will try to answer them right here in this column.

Pets love to explore their surroundings, and often find themselves eating things they shouldn't. In some cases, it may be relatively harmless, i.e. a mouthful of dirt, a piece of grass, an old shoe. Other times, they find things, or are given things by us, which can be quite toxic to them. All of the common toxicities in pets are avoidable: simply don't let your pet get into things they shouldn't.

Okay, so easier said than done. However, it is that simple. As pet guardians, it's very important that are always aware of our own and our pets' surroundings.

Ask yourself: What can they get into, onto or over? What's inside the house, in the garage and outdoors; on-leash or off-leash. Do we really know if something is safe to give?

If a known toxin is in the environment, access must strictly be prohibited. If your pets go into areas with which you are unfamiliar, check it out first and make sure it is clear of possibly harmful items.

While the following is not a complete list, it includes the most common toxins that can affect our pets, sometimes obtained behind our backs the way pets do, but sometimes given to them by us. 

  •  Rat Poison is a relatively common toxicity we see in dogs and cats. Usually you know if you have placed rat poison in your surroundings, but perhaps a neighbor has some in their yard, or your apartment/condo complex places it around the environment (or in the really unfortunate cases when it is used in a malicious manner). Most rat poisons contain warfarin-like chemicals which leads to bleeding problems. This can lead to either obvious or hidden blood loss, which can be fatal. Other rat poisons cause neurological signs, like weakness, tremors, seizures, or other problems, like nausea and kidney failure. The problem can be treatable, but not always if signs are severe and/or noticed too late.
  • Snail Bait, containing the toxin metaldehyde, causes tremors which can range from mild to violent. This is usually treatable, but in severe cases, can be difficult or not possible, and death could occur.
  • Gopher/Rodent Bait, containing strychnine, can lead to tremors, seizures, rigidity and death. This can be treatable, but in severe cases, the outcome may be poor.  
  • Antifreeze, containing the ingredient ethylene glycol, is a sweet liquid to which many pets are attracted. Garages are the obvious main source, and because the taste is so appealing, thorough inspection and cleaning of spilt antifreeze is very important. Antifreeze ingestion causes nausea, wobbliness and acute kidney failure leading to death.  
  • Advil (and generic ibuprofen) is a common over-the-counter medication used in humans for pain and arthritis. The drug itself is ibuprofen, which is toxic to pets. When people are looking for a quick fix for their hurt/sore pet, they may use the same stuff that helps them. While conservative doses of aspirin may sometimes be used in these situations, ibuprofen is not safe and can lead to nausea, stomach ulcers, kidney failure, and possibly death. Do not give your pet any drug without first checking with your veterinarian.
  • Tylenol, Excedrin and Vicodan (among others) contain the drug acetaminophen. While dogs can handle conservative doses of this drug, cats are very sensitive to it and it is very toxic, leading to nausea, wobbliness, a swollen face, red blood cell and hemoglobin disorders, liver failure and death. Never give this drug to your cat.
  • Other medications that you may be taking, may be harmful to your pet. Most of the time it's not that you are knowingly giving your pet these medications, but rather they get into them by chewing into pill bottles or finding pills on the floors or counters. In such cases, they usually eat more than one or two pills, and as such, develop a toxicity because of the amount. Some of the medications you take may not pose a major problem if only one or two were ingested–after all many of the medications you take are also used in pets–but, like in humans, if too much is taken, toxicity occurs. Keep all medications safe and secured.
  • Illicit drugs are frequently taken in by pets, either by accident or occasionally for malicious/misguided reasons. The most common is THC, the toxic ingredient in marijuana, because of its widespread use and because it often comes in the form of a tasty treat that pets are attracted to. Mental depression, slow heart and possible collapse can occur. While usually not life-threatening, very large amounts could be. Toxicity from other illicit drugs is fortunately seen less commonly; when it occurs it can be more life-threatening. Please make sure your pet does not have access to anything like this.
  • Plants/flowers/wild vegetation and herbicides/pesticides are hard to avoid inside and out, and most of the time, small amounts of many substances are not too harmful. But certain, more notable toxic hazards should be avoided completely, including oleander, easter lilies, certain mushroom varieties, organophosphates and carbamates to name just a few.

If you believe your pet has ingested something and you are concerned about it, call or go to your veterinarian immediately. If caught early, many pets can be decontaminated before any major problems arise. If the toxin has already taken effect, treatment is based on the body system involved, the symptoms and the severity of the condition.  

Given the preventability of these toxins, please do your best to protect your pet from having access to them. Always ask your veterinarian before giving your pet any medication, and react quickly if you think a toxin has been ingested.

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