photo 2010 Flavio Ensiki | more info (via: Wylio)
My dog recently started having muscle spasms and twitches. I saw him eat several snails before the problems started. Are snails poisonous? Did they cause the problems? The twitching got better after a few hours.
Los Altos, CA
As any connoisseur of French cuisine knows, most snails are edible. The molluscs do, however, have the potential to cause problems in a few ways.
Some snails, such as the cone snail, have poison glands that can inject lethal doses of toxins into dogs, cats, or humans. However, cone snails are marine organisms that live on tropical reefs. Unless your dog is an avid SCUBA diver, he is unlikely to come to harm after being stung by one of these creatures.
Many other species of snails are intermediate hosts for parasitic diseases in mammals. Snails may harbor lung worms (which can affect pets) or schistosomiasis (a nasty disease of people). Thoroughly cooking a snail in garlic butter generally will kill these parasites and make the snails safe to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend this tactic for a dog or cat since butter can cause pancreatitis, garlic can be toxic to cats, and feeding escargots to pets is a waste of a delicacy.
Your dog, in my opinion, did not suffer from any sort of snail poisoning. Rather, he was exposed to something far more pernicious: snail bait (also known as metaldehyde). Snails (and dogs) are attracted to granules containing metaldehyde. Dogs may eat snails that are dwelling in or have recently been exposed to metaldehyde. Metaldehyde poisoning is similar to strychnine poisoning. It causes tremors (which may become worse in response to any form of auditory, tactile, or visual stimulation). The tremors can progress to uncontrollable seizures and death. Believe it or not, your dog was lucky. Many dogs that are exposed to snail bait die unless they receive aggressive veterinary treatment.
I have railed against metaldehyde-based snail bait many times on this blog. It is a horrible idea, especially considering that a saucer of beer placed in the garden usually will draw snails into it to drown. The beer method is much more humane — the snails die drunk and happy, and no dogs are hurt.
My recommendation is to use Pabst Blue Ribbon for snail bait since snails can’t tell good beer from bad. Save the Kronenbourg 1664 for yourself. I find that Kronenbourg is especially useful for washing down an exquisitely prepared plate of escargots.
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