Halloween marked the official start of canine chocolate season, which peaks around Christmas and finally tapers out a short while after Valentine’s Day. Chocolate ingestion, of course, occurs year round, but between these holidays, I note a surge of people who call my office asking for advice on how to make their dog vomit.
Decontamination — vomiting — often is an important part of the treatment for chocolate ingestion and for many other exposures to toxins. People often think it’s a good idea to induce vomiting at home. In general, it is not.
People may want to induce vomiting at home if they think the course of the poisoning may be too advanced for treatment by the time they can get to the vet. However, unless you live in the middle of nowhere, the short delay that occurs by taking your pet to the vet to induce vomiting usually will not affect the outcome.
Many others want to induce vomiting at home because they don’t want to go to the vet for some reason or other (read: they don’t want to or may not be able to pay for a vet visit).
As a rule, I do not recommend inducing vomiting at home unless there is absolutely no other choice. There are several reasons.
It is physiologically demanding, and it can trigger complications. Dogs who vomit may suffer something known as a vagal response. This causes a condition that is similar clinically to an anaphylactic reaction; it requires urgent treatment. Also, dogs may suffer a complication called aspiration, in which the vomit is inhaled into the lungs leading to irritation, distress, and pneumonia. It also requires veterinary treatment. Aspiration is especially common in Pugs, Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, and other snub-nosed breeds.
If you take your dog to the vet to induce vomiting, there will be staff on hand to help prevent complications and to address them immediately if they occur.
There is another reason not to induce vomiting at home.
Syrup of ipecac was at one time recommended to induce vomiting in dogs and children. When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, every responsible parent had a bottle of ipecac somewhere in her home. Of course, in an awkward turn of events, it eventually became clear that ipecac itself is dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises against its use, and it no longer is readily available. It also no longer is recommended in dogs.
There are two other agents that are used at home to induce vomiting in dogs: table salt and hydrogen peroxide.
Table salt may indeed make a dog vomit. However, although a bit of salt in food is delicious for humans, large quantities of salt taste terrible. Dogs invariably struggle against the administration of salt, and many owners have been bitten by their dogs during their efforts to get salt down their pets’ throats.
Also, not all dogs vomit after being force-fed salt. Those who don’t are at risk of two types of poisoning — whatever it was that they originally consumed and the salt itself. Salt poisoning may lead to severe gastrointestinal upset, weakness, staggering, kidney failure, neurological problems, and death. The neurological problems especially are troublesome for dogs who have bitten their owners during salt administration. In many places, rabies laws require that dogs who bite any person and then go on to develop neurological symptoms must be euthanized for rabies testing.
The Pet Poison Helpline, which is run by veterinary toxicologists, sums it up best on its website: “The use of salt to induce vomiting in dogs and cats is no longer the standard of care and is not recommended for use by pet owners or veterinarians!”
Hydrogen peroxide also carries risks. It is a tissue irritant. It can cause injury to and even ulceration of the esophagus and the stomach. This is especially likely if the dog does not vomit after receiving it, and plenty of dogs do not. In my experience, hydrogen peroxide is especially prone to failure when used for chocolate ingestion. I long ago lost count of the dogs I have had to treat for chocolate ingestion and potential gastrointestinal ulceration after hydrogen peroxide failed at home.
Veterinarians have access to a much safer means of inducing vomiting: apomorphine. Apomorphine can be administered by intravenous injection. It causes very rapid onset of nausea, followed by vomiting, followed by a rapid recovery. Failure to cause vomiting is rare but not unheard of when apomorphine is used. However, apomorphine does not carry the risks of the other agents when it fails to work.
But what if you have no choice whatsoever? What if your dog has just consumed six blocks of bromethalin rat bait and you live 10 hours from the nearest vet? If you absolutely must induce vomiting at home, hydrogen peroxide is the least dangerous agent to use. But you won’t get a dosage amount from me or my office — you’ll have to consult Dr. Google for that.
Cat owners should be aware that all of the agents discussed in this article are equally or more dangerous to cats. They also are more failure prone. However, there is a relatively safe and reliable way to cause a cat to vomit at home: Buy a priceless handwoven Persian carpet and place your cat directly on the center of it.
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