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March is National Pet Poison Prevention Month

March is National Pet Poison Prevention Month and should serve as as a reminder to all pet owners to watch for both natural and processed pet toxins.

Veterinarians regularly field panicked calls from dog owners saying “Help! My dog got into (insert doggy no no… ) and I don't know what to do!”

Consider putting locks on cupboards as dogs – especially at the puppy stage - don’t hesitate to use their teeth to explore. Their curiosity may lead them to lick, chew or swallow potentially toxic items. 

If you suspect your pet has eaten a poisonous substance you need to act fasthowever most toxins won’t activate immediately. Depending on the toxin, it could take up to 20 minutes or more for a reaction. The best course of action is to call your vet immediately. If it is a weekend or after hours always have the number for a veterinary emergency clinic in your area. Here are the most common offenders resulting into emergency visits at the vet.

Offender No.1: Human Medications

It’s important to keep all prescription and over-the-counter drugs out of the reach of your pets, preferably in closed cabinets. 

Think of pets almost like toddlers: a childproof cap on a container may work for your kids but it won’t stop a determined puppy from chomping through the bottle!
Remind guests staying with you to store their medications safely away too. 

Pain killers, cold medicines, anti-cancer drugs, antidepressants, vitamins, and diet pills are common examples of human medication that could be potentially lethal even in small dosages.

During the holidays, veterinary clinics may have limited office hours. In some cases, pet owners try to medicate their animals without their veterinarian's advice. Never give your animal any medications unless under the directions of a veterinarian. Many medications that are used safely in humans can be deadly when used inappropriately. One regular strength Ibuprofen tablet can cause stomach ulcers in a 5kg dog!

Offender No. 2:  Baits & Poisons

Vets receive many calls resulting from our pets ingesting herbicides, insectisides and pesticides. Poisons that are designed to kill insects, rats and foliage can be poisonous to our pets too. 
These include:

  • Ant and roach baits
  • Weed killers
  • Rat baits
  • Snail baits
Snail bait poisoning, is a relatively common poisoning seen in pets and occurs when pets ingest snail or slug bait that contains the drug metaldehyde.
Snail and slug baits come in a variety of forms and may be mixed with other toxins. Ingestion can be fatal (even when just a small amount is ingested). Snail bait is often in a pellet form, which many dogs find attractive due to its close resemblance to dry dog food.

Secondly, snail bait is often formulated with other food products, such as soybeans, rice, oats, or molasses. These additives are designed to attract snails but unfortunately lure many unsuspecting dogs as well. It should be noted that snail bait can also be purchased in a liquid or granule form. Whilst these are more difficult to directly consume, pets can get them on their paws and lick them off during grooming.

Once ingested the symptoms of metaldehyde toxicity develop rapidly, sometimes within an hour of ingestion. 

Initially, your pet may simply show some mild twitching and an unsteady gait. They may appear anxious, lack co-ordination and have increased heart and breathing rates

Some animals may also salivate and/or vomit. Some owners may make the mistake of ignoring these early, relatively mild symptoms, hoping that they are only transient, rather than seeking veterinary attention.

If left untreated however, affected animals will begin to exhibit severe, generalised tremors, followed by seizures. These tremors and convulsions significantly raise the body temperature which can lead to permanent brain damage and ultimately death. If you suspect your pet has ingested snail bait you must seek veterinary treatment immediately to increase your pets chance of survival.
  • Mothballs - Naphthalene is the most common active ingredient found in mothballs. Most common signs seen with mothball ingestion include vomiting, anaemia, lethargy and seizures. Hepatitis is a rare effect and if seen would occur 3-5 days post exposure. Treatment of mothball ingestion includes early decontamination. 
All these poisons should be kept out of reach of pets in lockable, high cupboards or not used at all in households with pets.

Offender No. 3: Human Foods

Avoid the following items which could cause problems for your pet: 

  • Chocolate (baker's, semi-sweet, milk chocolate) - Chocolate contains two forms of methylxanthines, Theobromine and Caffeine, and their amounts vary with the type of chocolate. Unsweetened baking chocolate is more toxic than dark chocolate which is also more toxic than milk chocolate. White chocolate is the least toxic variety.
  • Coffee (grounds, beans, chocolate covered espresso beans)
  • Onions, onion powder
  • Fatty foods
  • Salt
  • Sultanas, raisins (in Christmas cakes, puddings etc.)
  • Yeast dough
  • String wrappings around rolled roasts
  • Absorbent pad found under meat when wrapped on trays
  • Mouldy or spoiled foods and compost
You can also check our previous story on "15 People Foods your Dog should never eat" for a more comprehensive list.

Offender No. 4: Toxic Plants

If your dog spends time outside without supervision be aware that many common flowers and plants can be deadly for them. If your dog has ingested or chomped something you can’t immediately identify, bring a sample or use the camera on your phone to take a photo and show it to your vet. 

We often say that dogs will eat anything and that cats are finicky. When it comes to houseplants, cats can actually be the worst offenders and it is advised to keep all plants out of your cat’s reach.

For a detailed list, please read our article on “Common Plants Toxic to your Dogs”.

Offender No. 5: Fertilisers

Fertiliser products generally contain varying amounts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) compounds. Fertilisers may be in a liquid, granular or solid form. They may have additives such as herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, iron, copper and zinc. 

Because fertilisers are usually a combination of ingredients, the effects following ingestion may differ. In general, fertilisers cause mild to moderate gastrointestinal irritation which may involve signs such as vomiting, diarrhoea, hypersalivation, lethargy and abdominal pain. In most cases the effects are self-limiting and resolve within 24-48 hours with supportive veterinary care. 

RSPCA Australia recommends that owners take active steps to ensure that their dogs and other pets do not ingest any type of fertilizer material. Some types of fertiliser such as bone meal and blood meal may be eaten in large quantities by dogs which can cause significant gastrointestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, constipation) and possibly pancreatitis. Certain fertilisers may also contain bacterial or fungal toxins which can have serious side effects if ingested.

Fertilisers can also be caustic, which irritates the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. In some cases ingestion may lead to gastrointestinal ulceration. Impaction (gastrointestinal blockage) with fertiliser material may also occur in some cases.

Symptoms may be more severe however, if a large amount of fertiliser is ingested or if additives such as insecticides and iron are part of the fertiliser mix. Some fertilizers contain a significant amount of iron which can result in iron toxicity. Though heavy metals such as iron are generally not readily absorbed into the animal’s system, they can pose a hazard when dogs ingest large amounts. A few fertilisers also contain insecticides such as disulfoton, a highly toxic organophosphate which when ingested can cause a sudden onset of seizures and pancreatitis.

Offender No.6: Household Items

  • Pieces of cloth such as socks, underwear, ribbons etc.
  • Personal hygiene items such as tampons and sanitary pads and condoms 
  • Batteries
  • Cleaning products – these often contain acidic or alkaline ingredients, which can cause caustic or corrosive lesions in the stomach or intestines.
  • Glow in the dark jewellery - these jewellery pieces are filled with dibutyl phthalate, which causes profuse salivation and possibly vomiting in animals that bite into them. This response is due to a taste reaction rather than a toxicosis. Give a treat, such as milk or tuna juice, to dilute the taste of the chemical and contact your veterinarian.
  • Liquid pot-pourri - it may contain dangerous toxins for dogs (cationic ingredients) that can burn the tissues in the mouth, esophagus and stomach and cause serious skin burns.
  • Painting and varnishing products - household paints and varnishes are relatively harmless and usually only cause mild GI upset. However, pet owners become concerned when paint gets on the animal's fur and make the mistake of trying to remove it with paint thinners, such as turpentine or mineral spirits.
  • Turpentine and methylated spirits - these products are extremely irritating to the skin and footpads and can also affect the breathing and brain. The best method of removing paint thinners is by bathing with a dish washing detergent and cool water. Further treatment may be required. Consult your veterinarian if you have any concerns.
  • Silica gel - this is used as a desiccant in newly purchased clothing, shoes, and purses. It is an inert ingredient and is not toxic. The only time it is of concern is when a small animal swallows a large amount, which can expand with water and possibly cause an obstruction or diarrhoea.
  • Soaps and shampoos – usually cause mild gastrointestinal signs

Offender No.7: Alcohol and Cigarettes

Animals will drink a variety of alcohols, ranging from methanol found in windshield washing solutions to vodka at a party. Unbaked bread dough is another source of alcohol. 

Tobacco products may also be attractive to pets. These contain varying amounts of nicotine and butts have about 25% of the total nicotine content. Alcohol and cigarettes should be kept out of the reach of pets.

Offender No.8: Cane Toads

Cane toads are a common cause of poisoning to dogs and less commonly cats.
When toads feel threatened they ooze a milky poison through the glands in the skin. If your pet is to lick, bite or eat a cane toad, this poison can make them quite sick and also have a hallucinogenic effect on them.

Symptoms of cane toad poisoning will vary depending on the amount of poison that was ingested but signs include:

  • Excessive salivation, drooling, bright red/slimy gums, vomiting in mild cases or
  • Muscle spasms, seizures, increased or rapid heart rate and even death in severe cases

If you suspect your pet has ingested any of these items or any other questionable substance, always contact your veterinarian immediately to discuss the symptoms and seek advice.

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