Pet Toxins

Common exposures

Exposure to toxins or unintended substances are a relatively common problem with household pets, both dogs and cats. To prevent exposures to chemicals, you should attempt to “animal-proof” your home. There are various products available at stores to secure cabinets and drawers. Websites and books also describe procedures to secure cabinets, outlets and doors. One major thing that should be done is to move toxic substances out of lower level cabinets or place cabinet locks on doors and drawers so that pets cannot get into these cabinets. Most animals typically will not get into items that taste bad, but antifreeze (with a sweet taste) and flavored medications will actually attract some pets to ingest them. Also, young animals are curious and may be more prone to get into things when bored.

Prevention is the best remedy and “animal-proofing” your house will decrease the chance of exposure to toxins. You can also move items except for medications that are taken daily to inaccessible places such as high shelves or out of the lowest cabinets to decrease exposure risk. Consider putting chemicals like antifreeze, motor oils, herbicides, household insecticides and rodenticides in a garage or outbuilding to which the animals do not have access. However, if your pet does get exposed to something, take your pet to your local veterinarian for monitoring and treatment. There are also various animal poison control lines including the Pet Poison Helpline (affiliated with the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota) and the National Animal Poison Control Center through the College of Veterinary Medicine in Illinois. The Pet Poison Helpline can be reached at 1-800-213-6680 for a $39 consultation fee with unlimited follow-up calls by you and/or your veterinarian while the National Animal Poison Control Center can be reached at 1-(888) 426-4435 for a $65 consultation fee. If you have already called one of these hotlines when you take your pet to your local veterinarian, make sure you give the case number so that you will not be charged again if your veterinarian does use either of these services for a consultation.

According to the Pet Poison Helpline, the most common calls about unintentional exposures are for human medications or vitamin/supplements (48.5%), human foods that are toxic to pets (16%), insecticides (7.5%) and rodenticides (6.5%). This list makes up over 75% of the calls that the Pet Poison Helpline received last year. In addition to these exposures, pets are susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning and exposure to toxic houseplants. The following paragraphs discuss each of these toxins in brief. Hopefully, this information can help you avoid an unintentional exposure to a food product or a life-threatening toxicity. If an exposure does occur, make sure to take the medication, supplement or a sample of the ingested item with you when you seek veterinary care.

For medicines and supplements or vitamins, the best way to prevent exposure is to keep these items in high cabinets or areas where pets cannot get to them. Some pets can jump onto or stand on their back legs to reach counter-tops or tables, so avoid leaving medications out in the open. You can ask your pharmacist for childproof caps for any prescription medications, which decreases the likelihood of unintentional exposures by children and pets. When it comes to some vitamins, remember that many, especially children’s vitamins and some pet supplements may be flavored to be sweet. This may attract your pet should they get access to the bottle, so make sure to put vitamins in an area your pet cannot reach. Exposure to excess vitamins can be dangerous when these supplements contain iron, zinc or vitamins such as D and E, all of which can be stored by the body. Medications are also sometimes accidentally ingested by pets. Due to the number of prescriptions, the Pet Poison Helpline identified one of the most common medication group that dogs ingest as antidepressants. Many of these are SSRIs (also known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) and may lead to seizures or be life-threatening if taken at a high enough dosages. If your pet is suffering from behavior problems such as separation anxiety or seizures and gets exposed to an antidepressant, please take both the medication the pet ingested and the prescription for your pet’s condition when you seek care. The dose of your medication may not be dangerous on its own, but if combined with a medication for a behavioral disorders in your pet, it could become life-threatening as many of these medications work in similar ways in the body. Common over the counter medications can also be dangerous. Please be aware that common “pain” medications like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be very dangerous to cats or dogs when ingested. Therefore, a pet should be taken in for treatment as soon as possible with exposure to these common human medications, even at low doses. Unlike people, dogs and cats lack the enzymes needed to process these medications fully and toxicity can occur rapidly.

Human food: In addition to these common medications, some foods can be unsafe for consumption by pets. Most people have heard of chocolate foods being dangerous to dogs (and cats). Dark chocolate or bakers chocolate is the most dangerous. An exposed pet should be taken to the veterinarian quickly in response to eating even a small portion of a these chocolates. Call your veterinarian about milk chocolates or any other chocolate exposure to determine if the amount ingested is likely to cause a problem and do it as soon as you know an ingestion has occurred. In some cases, decontamination (removal of the dangerous food) can be done with few side effects, while the toxicity reaction could be very expensive to monitor and treat. Some other dangerous items include diet products, grapes and seasonings or vegetables. Sugarless gum and diet products should also not ever be given to dogs because they may contain xylitol. This sweetener can quickly result in a diabetic coma in dogs, from a drop in the dog’s blood sugar. Also be aware that grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure in some dogs. Garlic, leeks, chives and onions also should not be given to dogs due to their ability to damage red blood cells which carry oxygen to tissues. Other foods to be avoided include nuts in general – especially macadamia nuts in dogs.
When it comes to your animal receiving table scraps or human foods, be aware that portion sizes we typically eat are going to be too large for your pet’s smaller body size. Take for example a 75 lb lab, he should only get half as much of a lean meat or safe snack as a human. A shi tzu or other small dog should receive less than one-tenth of what you would eat of meat or a snack. Avoid giving pets fatty meats or foods that are very greasy as this can sometimes lead to pancreatitis.

Insecticides are commonly used to protect food, eliminate insect pests and keep our properties safe for pets and children. However, many of these products, even those we use on our pets (topical flea and tick medications), can be very dangerous if ingested. Always keep your flea and tick medications in a place where pets and children cannot reach them. The most dangerous of these insecticides are a group called organophosphates. If at all possible, organophosphate use should be avoided on your property and near your pets and children. I would suggest using fipronil, or pyrethrin or permethrin insecticides as they are less dangerous to pets and you. Organophosphates are so dangerous because they undergo a process of “aging” after ingestion and therefore their toxicity can last much longer than other insecticides. Any pet recently treated with a topical flea (and/or tick) medication should be taken to a veterinarian if they should start shaking, exhibiting abnormal behavior or stop responding normally to you. Cats are especially susceptible to these products when ingested so make sure that you do not use dog products on any of your cats. If you do suspect toxic reaction to a product, take the package you used or the container for an environmental insecticide with you to the veterinary clinic.
Although it is tempting to buy the generic brands of flea and tick medication because it is typically half the price of your veterinary brand of Comfortis (spinosad) or Frontline (or its generic Fiproguard), be aware that these cheaper products may contain organophosphates. Unfortunately, the $10 you save on the product may cost an expensive veterinary bill and potentially your cat or dog his life. I have personally seen this happen when pets have licked off part of these products off after treatment and the resultant seizures could not be controlled, leading to death of a beloved family pet.

Rodenticides are sometimes necessary to control rats or mice, especially on farms. However, the risk of toxicity is present from both a pet ingesting the product and from relay toxicity. Relay toxicity is when the pet eats a rodent that has been exposed to a rodenticide and the pet experiences toxicity from eating the rodent. This is more common in cats due to their relatively small body size compared to the rodents. Rodenticides have various methods of action, including thinning the blood (prevention of blood clotting); therefore they should be used with care around pets. There are other ways to handle rodents which include sticky (glue) traps, catch and release traps (for those who want to relocate rodents) and the traditional bait-snapping traps. With all of these traps, there is a small risk of injury to a pet, but the likelihood of severe toxicity is not possible.

Other possible toxins or exposures include gases and plant exposures
Most of our household pets are much smaller than we are and can experience toxicity from gas exposure more quickly than we can. They are closer to the ground, have a smaller body size with a higher breathing rate and so can quickly become intoxicated by gases such as carbon monoxide in an enclosed space such as a garage. Wood burning stoves with inadequate venting can also release carbon monoxide inside the home. The best way to avoid exposure is to never run a gasoline motor or gas operated appliance in a garage or other enclosed space. You can pick up a carbon monoxide detector at your local hardware store for less than $50 and it will protect the whole family. If you suspect your pet has been exposed, remove him from the area immediately to fresh air and check for breathing problems, disorientation or behavioral problems. If these do not improve quickly or they worsen, immediate medical attention by a veterinarian is necessary, including oxygen administration.

Finally, we sometimes unwittingly expose our pets to toxic plants by having them in our house. While we are likely to enjoy the plants for their scent, appearance and oxygen creation, our pets sometimes like to taste them as well. If you have pets that don’t ingest plants, congratulations; otherwise be aware of seasonal plants such as lilies around Easter or poinsettia or mistletoe in the winter because they are toxic and can lead to renal failure in cats (lilies) or irritation of the mouth, vomiting and salivation in dogs and cats (poinsettia). The following is an abridged list of houseplants that may cause toxicity in pets.


Common Name  Latin Name
Amaryllis                                 Hippeastrum spp.
Anthurium                               Anthurium spp.
Apricot kernels (seeds)           Prunus armeniaca
Azaleas                                    Rhododendron spp
Caladium                                 Caladium bicolor
Calla Lily                                Calla palustrus
Cathedral bell                          Kalanchoe spp.
Chinese Evergreen                  Aglaonema spp.
Crocus (Autumn)                    Colchicum autumnale
Daffodil                                  Narcissus spp.
Dumb Cane                             Dieffenbachia spp.
Elephant’s Ear                         Colocasia antiquorum
English Ivy                              Hedera helix
Fishtail Palm                           Caryota spp.
Holly Berries                           Ilex aquifolium
Hyacinth                                 Hyacinthus orientalis
Jerusalem Cherry                     Solanum pseudocapsicum
Lantana                                   Lantana camara
Mistletoe                                 Phoradendron spp.
Mountain laurel                       Kalmia spp.
Oleander                                 Nerium oleander
Philodendron                          Philodendron spp.
Ranunculus (buttercups)         Ranunculus spp.
Rosary Pea                              Abrus precatorius
Schefflera shrubs                    Schefflera actinophylla
Spath/ Peace Lilies                  Spathiphyllum spp.
Yew                                         Taxus spp.

For more information on these or other potentially toxic plants or exposures, you can use the alphabetical reference provided at the Pet Poison Helpline site:

Best of luck in keeping your pets safe.
SMason, DVM

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