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Ask a Vet: What are the Most Common Ways a Dog Can Get Poisoned?

Poisoning is among the most common things emergency vets treat; here's what can lead to it.

 |  Mar 18th 2014  |   0 Contributions


This week is National Poison Prevention Week in the United States. The week-long event is designed to raise awareness of the risks of poisoning in people.

It should come as no surprise to you that poisoning doesn't just occur in people. In fact, dogs who have been exposed to or have consumed toxins make up a very significant proportion of the cases I see in my job as an emergency veterinarian. Some of these dogs wind up in urgently life-threatening situations.

The poisonings I most frequently encounter in my practice

Below are listed the most common poisons that I see in canine patients, with the generally more common ones listed first.

Chocolate: Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, which can cause agitation, GI upset, heart arrhythmias, seizures, and death. The good news is that milk chocolate and chocolate-coated nougats (like See's Candies) contain relatively small quantities of the toxins. The bad news is that dogs generally are attracted to chocolate and will consume it whenever they get a chance. Also, there has been a recent trend of people preferring darker chocolates, which are more dangerous types of chocolate.

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Chocolate by Shutterstock.

Human medicine -- prescription or over-the-counter: Why would a dog hoover up a bunch of bitter pills that were spilled accidentally by an owner? Because dogs are silly. That silliness can lead to big time problems if dogs consume blood pressure medications (which can lead to fatally low blood pressure), asthma inhalers (agitation and heart arrhythmias), ADHD medications (amphetamine toxicity), arthritis medications (GI ulceration and liver or kidney damage), antidepressants (coma, GI upset, agitation, sedation, serotonin syndrome), diabetes medications (dangerously low blood sugar), and any of a host of other types of medications.

Veterinary medications: It is not uncommon for dogs to overdose on their own medications. The most frequent offender in my experience is Rimadyl, an arthritis medication and pain killer that comes in a highly palatable flavored tablet. Rimadyl overdoses put dogs at risk of gastrointestinal ulceration and kidney failure. In general, flavored medications pose the greatest risk. However, I have seen dogs overdose on just about every medication out there.

Sugarless gums and candies: Most dogs have sweet tooths. They are therefore unfortunately prone to consuming candies and gums sweetened with xylitol. This product has the potential to cause fatally low blood sugar and liver failure. Treatment often requires several days of hospitalization.

Grapes and raisins: These fruits have been linked to kidney failure in dogs. Dogs who consume sufficient quantities of them require multiple days in the hospital.

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They seem harmless, but they might not be. Fresh grapes by Shutterstock.

Rodent bait: Any bait that is poisonous to rats, mice, and gophers also is poisonous to dogs. There are several varieties of rodenticide on the market. Some cause uncontrollable hemorrhage. Some cause brain swelling. Others cause kidney failure. Some gopher baits contain zinc phosphide, which may cause halitosis, bloody vomiting, difficulty breathing, seizures, coma, and death.

Snail bait: The most common type of snail bait contains metaldehyde, a poison that causes seizures and high body temperature. Significant snail bait ingestions are nearly always fatal if not promptly treated.

Low-quality topical flea and tick control products: Cheap spot-on products from supermarkets and pet stores often contain pyrethroids and permethrin, which have low safety margins. If the products are consumed orally, or if a wrong sized product is applied topically, or if the correct sized product is applied to an especially sensitive dog, then symptoms may result. The symptoms include disorientation, drooling, and muscle tremors, which can progress to seizures and death. It's best never to purchase these products but instead to stick to name-brand products like Comfortis and Advantage, or to use Frontline or a similar generic product that contains fipronil (with or without s-methoprene).

Mold: Dogs who consume discarded moldy cheese or that get into moldy leaves, nuts, or compost in the yard may develop tremors, disorientation, and seizures.

Mushrooms: Mushrooms can pop up overnight and some dogs are attracted to them. There are many different types of toxic mushrooms; some cause GI upset, some are psychedelic, some cause tremors and seizures, and some (exemplified by the death cap mushroom) cause fatal liver failure.

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The name says it all. Death cap mushroom by Shutterstock.

Pennies: Did you know pennies are poisonous? Pennies made since 1983 consist mostly of zinc. If that zinc leaches out of the penny in the gastrointestinal tract it can cause a life-threatening anemia.

Marijuana and "edibles": Although marijuana "toxicity" is easily the most common type of toxicity that I see (I work in Northern California, where the stuff is ubiquitous), I saved this one for last (and used quotes around the word toxicity) for a reason. Although dogs are attracted to marijuana plants themselves as well as edible products containing THC, marijuana intoxication almost never leads to significant complications. Affected dogs do, however, often become so stoned that they require supportive care (IV fluids, thermal support, and so forth) at veterinary clinics.

How to prevent dog poisoning

The best way to prevent poisoning is to prevent access to poisons. Keep your dog away from the products listed above, as well as other known toxins.

What to do if your dog consumes something poisonous

Time is of the essence in cases of poisoning. I do not recommend that you waste it searching the Internet for toxic doses and home remedies. Instead, call your family vet or local emergency clinic (if it's after hours) for guidance.

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Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Also be aware of two additional superb telephone resources for pets, vets, and owners. The first is the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Hotline (1-888-426-4435), which is long-established and well respected. Their experts can offer at-home guidance, as well as support for your veterinarian if treatment is necessary. The second resource is the Pet Poison Helpline (1-800-213-6680), which offers similar services. Both hotlines charge a small fee, and both are well worth it.

Finally, if your dog requires veterinary treatment during a poisoning emergency, be sure to bring all packaging (such as boxes for rodenticides, wrappers for gum, and prescription bottles for medications) that may be relevant to the situation. The packaging will provide details on the product's ingredients that may be helpful to the vet.

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