Did your pet consume something they shouldn’t have? Are you worried your pet has eaten something dangerous? Early treatment is key for a favorable prognosis. Concerned pet owners can call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center hotline at 888-426-4435 or the Pet Poison Hotline at 855-764-7661 (fees apply for these hotlines). Ask for your case number so it can be accessed at the hospital, if needed.
According to the ASPCA-APCC Hotline, the top pet toxin cases involve:
10. Gardening products (fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides)
9. Insecticides (insect and pest poisons)
8. Plants (indoor plants, outdoor plants, bouquets)
7. Rodentcides (mice and rat poisons)
6. Household items (paint, glue, cleaning supplies)
5. Veterinary products (such as pet medications)
4. Chocolate (baked goods, candy)
3. Food (such as xylitol, grapes/raisins, onions/garlic)
2. Human prescription medication
1. Over the counter medications (pain relievers, cold medicines, herbal supplements)
Over the past 11 years we have received many calls and questions about toxicities and accidental ingestions. Here are a few that stand out:
Lily Toxicity (Cats)
Lilies in the true lily and daylily families are serious dangers to cats. The toxin, while still not fully understood, targets a cat’s kidneys and causes irreversible acute renal (kidney) failure. Toxins from lilies are rapidly absorbed after ingestion. Clinical signs can start in as little as five minutes and may include vomiting, anorexia, depression, and hypersalivation (excessive saliva production.) Renal failure starts within 12 to 24 hours post-ingestion. Later signs include polyuria (increased urination), depression, and anorexia. If a cat is not treated quickly, the prognosis is grave.
The most alarming part of lily toxicity is that all parts of a lily are toxic to a cat: leaves, petals, pollen, stems, even water in the vase has potential to cause harm. Common lilies toxic to cats include tiger lilies, stargazer lilies, day lilies, all Asiatic lilies, and Japanese show lilies. Easter lilies are also quite dangerous: many accidental ingestions happen around the Easter holiday.
While there is no “cure” for lily toxicity, treatments are available that greatly improve the prognosis if administered promptly. This may involve decontamination, such as inducing vomiting, gastric lavage, and administering activated charcoal with sorbitol. Additionally, cats are started on aggressive fluid therapy (2-3x maintenance) for 48-72 hours. Gastroprotectants are also helpful (antiemetics, antacid, phosphate binders.) Some cats that recover from acute toxicity may be prone to developing chronic kidney disease later in life.
If you are uncertain if a lily is toxic, keep it out of your cat’s reach until you can contact your veterinarian or contact a pet poison hotline for more details.
- If left untreated, pyrethrin/pyrethroid toxicity can be fatal to cats.
Contact poison control or visit your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your pet has ingested or was exposed via the skin. Have the products you suspect your pet came in contact with available.
Xylitol Toxicity (Dogs)
Xylitol (also identified as birch sugar) is a natural sugar substitute. Xylitol has a sugar-like taste with less calories, lower glycemic index, and anti-cavity properties. Although xylitol is a safe sugar substitute in humans, it is toxic to dogs. A few pieces of xylitol-sweetened gum has the ability to affect dogs within minutes. There is no antidote for this type of toxicity, but the prognosis is favorable for dogs treated quickly.
What makes xylitol dangerous for dogs? Human and canine blood sugar levels are both controlled by the pancreas and its ability to release insulin. Xylitol does not cause the release of insulin in humans. In canines, however, it triggers a large release. This causes a spike in blood sugar and can result in hypoglycemia (a dangerous drop in blood sugar.) In addition, xylitol can cause liver damage. While researchers are unsure of the correlation between xylitol and the liver at this time, liver enzymes often become elevated in dogs after they eat xylitol. Most cases of liver enzyme elevations are mild, but very large doses of xylitol in dogs can lead to liver failure, a serious and possibly fatal condition.
As little as 50mg of xylitol per pound of body weight can cause hypoglycemia and its effects can begin to occur in as little as 10 minutes. While different brands contain different amounts, typically the range is 300 to 1500 mg per piece. To put this into perspective, if a piece of gum has 1,000mg of xylitol, a 20 lb. dog may experience its effects after ingesting just one piece.
Clinical signs develop rapidly, usually within the first 15-30 minutes after ingestion. Signs of xylitol ingestion can include, but are not limited to:
- Ataxia (lack of coordination)
- Tremors/ seizures
Common products containing xylitol are chewing gums, candies, mints, toothpastes, and mouthwashes. Some baking mixes, puddings, baked goods, nut butters, and home and beauty products may also contain xylitol. Pet owners are encouraged to read product labels before bringing these items into the home.
One of the most commonly searched toxicities, chocolate contains both theobromine and caffeine, both of which speed the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system. Structurally similar, these two chemicals belong to a group of chemicals called methylxanthines. In human medicine they can be used as diuretics, heart stimulants, and blood vessel dilators. Pets are not built the same as humans and cannot easily metabolize these substances.
While cats are also at risk of chocolate toxicity, the overwhelming majority of cases treated are dogs. The amount of caffeine and theobromide in chocolate varies wildly on the type of chocolate. Cocoa beans and powder are the most concerning, followed by baker’s chocolate, semisweet dark chocolate, and milk chocolate. “White” chocolate has an insignificant amount of methylxanthines to cause major problems, but should still not be given to pets. It should also be noted that some companies sell cocoa bean mulch, which is still cocoa beans – and quite toxic to pets if ingested!
A pet’s risk of becoming sick from chocolate depends on several factors: the type of chocolate consumed, the quantity ingested, and the weight of the dog. A few squares of dark chocolate may not be life threatening to a Great Dane but may cause a Pug serious concern.
Clinical signs of chocolate poisoning may develop over the course of a few hours post ingestion and may include:
- Rapid and/or irregular heartbeat
- Excessive thirst and/or urination
- Muscle tremors
- Heart problems
Owners suspecting their pet consumed chocolate should contact a pet poison control immediately. Include details like the type of chocolate consumed, elapsed time since ingestion, any clinical signs you may notice, and the pet’s weight. Treatment may include intravenous fluid therapy, medication to induce vomiting, or activated charcoal to block absorption.
Alliums: onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, chives, scallions
Kitchen staples across the globe, alliums are a relatively large family of herbs and vegetables which include onions, leeks, garlic, chives, and garlic. Alliums are especially concerning because toxicity applies in all forms, including fresh, dried/dehydrated, powdered, cooked, and liquid forms.. Pet owners are urged to read labels, as many items thought of as “safe” can contain some kind of allium – baby foods, broths, pasta sauces, sauces and dips, human nutritional supplements, and more. Allium toxicity can affect both cats and dogs, but cats are more sensitive to their effects.
Very little of these herbs and vegetables are needed to be ingested to cause damage. For onions, consuming as little as 5g/kg (five grams per kilogram of body weight; 1 kilogram is equal to approximately 2.20 pounds) in cats and 15-30g/kg in dogs can cause “clinically important” red blood cell damage. Not all alliums are as potent as others: garlic is the most toxic, approximately five times more concentrated than onions – making one clove of garlic very dangerous for cats and small dogs.
With all mammals, red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. The toxic components of alliums, disulfides and thiosulphates, attach to oxygen molecules and damage a pet’s red blood cell membranes. The body sees these damaged red blood cells as foreign bodies – and attacks. Damaged cells are prone to burst, resulting in anemia (specifically Heinz body formation.) Without healthy blood cells transferring oxygen, weakened pets may pant in an attempt to get more oxygen into their body.
Clinical signs of allium toxicity typically develop within 24 hours of ingestion, but may be delayed based on the amount ingested and weight of the animal. Signs of allium toxicity include, but are not limited to:
- Pale, yellow, or brownish gums
- Abdominal pain
- Increased heart rate
- Elevated respiratory rate
- Dark or unusually colored urine
Yeast/Raw Bread Dough
While baked bread is safe (although not particularly nutritious) for pet consumption, its raw or pre-cooked state is a cause for a concern. From breads to pizzas to cinnamon rolls, doughs use yeast. Part of the fungi family, yeast is a living organism activated in a warm, moist environment. Once activated, yeast transforms carbohydrates into carbon dioxide an alcohol.
When a pet eats uncooked dough, it travels to the stomach for digestion. There, the warm, moist stomach allows yeast to continue transforming the carbohydrates. Carbon dioxide created by the dough causes the stomach to expand. Gas produced in this fashion doesn’t pass easily like other digestive processes, causing pressure on the digestive system. This pressure can rupture the stomach lining, damage the diaphragm, and can cause bloat or GDV (gastric dilatation-volvulus.) GDV is a true medical emergency that requires emergency surgery.
Signs of GDV include, but are not limited to:
- changes in breathing (shallow breaths or heavy panting)
- swelling/bulge in abdomen
Raw dough in the stomach also continues to transform into alcohol, meaning it can lead to alcohol toxicity. The alcohol’s effects will depend on how much is eaten and whether the dough was consumed on an empty stomach.
Signs of alcohol poisoning include, but are not limited to:
- slowed reflexes
Because dough requires proofing (time to rest and rise before baking,) it can be easily accessible to pets on countertops. Be sure to select a location difficult for pets to access, or remain with the dough for the entire process.
Grapes & Raisins
One of the most widely-known toxicities, grapes, raisins, currants, and sultanas are all toxic to dogs. Whether dried or fresh, commercial or homegrown, all colors and varietals pose a threat.
Advising on grape and raisin toxicity is difficult for several reasons. Researchers and scientists are not entirely sure what causes the toxicity, although new findings point to tartaric acid as the culprit. It has also been reported that some – but not all – dogs can consume a few grapes without harm. Tartaric acid can vary in types of grapes, how ripe they are, and growing conditions. This means that if tartaric acid is the culprit, it could explain why some pets get very sick while others seem unaffected after eating similar amounts. Because it is difficult to predict how a dog will fare, it is best to avoid these fruits altogether*.
If a dog cannot tolerate grapes, the toxin decreases blood flow to the kidneys and causes kidney failure.
Common signs of toxicity can include, but are not limited to:
Within the first 24 hours of ingestion:
- Lack of appetite
More severe signs (once kidney damage has begun) can include:
- Abdominal pain (a pet may have a hunched appearance or are unwilling to lay down)
- Excessive urination
- Excessive thirst
- Breath smelling of ammonia
A veterinarian treating a dog within a few hours of suspected ingestion may induce vomiting in an attempt to remove fruit from the stomach before it can be further digested. Activated charcoal may also be administered. This binds to grape material, keeping it from being absorbed. Intravenous fluid therapy can flush toxins from the kidneys if they are not functioning properly. These IVs may also contain anti-vomiting medications and pain management.
As with many toxicities, early treatment offers the best chance of recovery. If a dog is straining to urinate it may indicate acute kidney failure, and offers a poor prognosis.
*note: Grape jellies and juices do not appear to be a concern for toxicity. Wine is also not a culprit, but should not be offered to dogs due to its alcohol content.
Harmful Algal Bloom (HABs)
Many aquatic organisms depend on algae for food. Algae in general is a healthy freshwater organism that carries out photosynthesis. Some blooms become toxic, and others do not. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the difference by sight alone. Blue-green algae is a cause for concern as it can produce cyanotoxins.
Harmful algal blooms occur when nutrients mix with warm weather and still water. Algal blooms can occur almost anywhere (lakes, ponds, rivers, reservoirs, etc.) across Pennsylvania as temperatures rise, most commonly seen between mid June through Labor Day. Algal blooms can appear foamy, scummy, or oily on the surface. Ongoing blooms make take on a blue, green, red, orange, yellow, or even brown color. Dying blooms can release a rotting-type odor that may attract dogs.
Both humans and pets can be affected by waters affected by toxic algae blooms. Humans who come in contact with this algae may notice blisters, hives, or rashes in the areas of contact. If swallowed, diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, and abdomen pain may occur. Pets (especially dogs) are more susceptible to this toxic algae than humans. In addition to drinking water, algae can also be ingested when a dog licks their paws/fur that have remnants of algae on them.
Signs of algae poisoning can include, but are not limited to:
- Excessive salvation
- Staggered, “drunk” walking
- Difficulty breathing
Most signs begin within 30 minutes of exposure, but depends on the size of the dog, amount of algae ingested, and concentration of the toxins. Algae ingestion is a true medical emergency – pets can die from the cyanobacterial poisoning.
Pet owners who see bodies of water with possible algae blooms should not let their pet drink from or play near the area. Leave the area and wipe fur and paws with pet-friendly wipes or soap and water. If possible, contact your local DEP office to report the bloom.
As the nation decriminalizes and adopts new policies on drugs, it increases a pet’s risk of drug-related toxicity. The most common type of drug-related toxicity seen at VREC is marijuana. Pets can be exposed via smoke inhalation, ingestion of the marijuana itself, or through ingestion of foods with marijuana in them (especially baked goods.)
Marijuana’s active ingredient is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol,) a naturally occurring psychoactive substance. This should not be confused with CBD (cannabidiol,) another chemical compound found in marijuana. Unlike THC, CBD is not psychoactive, meaning it will not produce the “high” that is associated with marijuana. CBD products are found in many pet stores, though their effectiveness has not been determined in clinical trials at this time.
Both dogs and cats are susceptible to marijuana: dogs are more likely to ingest the drug, while cats are more likely to be sickened by exposure to smoke. Clinical signs may develop as soon as five minutes to 12 hours after exposure, and signs of exposure can include, but are not limited to:
- Dilated pupils
- Agitation or sedation
- “Drunken” stumbling walk/ swaying
- General disorientation
- Urinary incontinence
Veterinarians care little about the illegal aspects of drugs – their goal is to treat pets to the best of their abilities. If you suspect your pet has ingested an illicit drug, please do not hesitate to bring them in for evaluation. Some may have an aversion to seek care due to stigma or the fear of legal repercussions. Veterinarians will not call the police.
Regardless of the drug, a pet’s prognosis is greatly improved the sooner proper treatment begins. In suspected cases of drug exposure, veterinary staff greatly prefer honesty as it helps quickly diagnose and treat a pet. Key information such as type of substance, time of exposure, time of first noticed clinical signs, along with their type and duration are incredibly helpful.
Nicotine (cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, e-juice, gums)
Nicotine poisoning is a concern in any situation where cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or even nicotine gum, patches, or e-cigarettes are present. Cigarette butts are also of concern, as they are small, easily chewable, and contain a good deal of residual nicotine after use.
As with many accidental ingestions, a pet is affected to a greater or lesser extent based on the quantity ingested and their weight. Some pets have been reported to experience clinical signs at doses as low as one milligram per kilogram of body weight (one kilogram is 2.20 pounds,) but the median lethal dose in dogs is 9.2mg/kg. To put this into perspective, the average cigarette contains between 9-30 mg of nicotine, and cigarette butts can contain up to 25% of the original quantity of nicotine. E-cigarettes use a cartridge that contains a nicotine solution and flavoring. This solution, often called “e-juice,” can contain anywhere from 6mg to 24mg of nicotine.
Many times nicotine poisoning is difficult to pinpoint, as its clinical signs may be mistaken for another ingestion or even a virus. If you did not see a pet ingest nicotine – but you or a family member has nicotine products – be sure to let a veterinarian know so specific tests can be run.
Signs of nicotine poisoning include, but are not limited to:
- Abnormal heart rate
- Extreme excitement
- High blood pressure
- Low blood pressure
- Fast heartbeat
- Weak and irregular pulse
Clinical signs start early with nicotine, usually within 60-90 minutes of ingestion. In any quantity ingested, the quicker a pet is seen by a veterinarian after a nicotine ingestion, the better. Caught early, veterinarians can prevent absorption (sometimes including activated charcoal,) and promote excretion of the nicotine.
Did you know Pennsylvania farms lead the nation in white mushroom production? These commercially grown mushrooms are not of concern to pet parents. Any mushroom exposure that did not come from a kitchen is considered potentially toxic. According to research, Pennsylvania is home to seven varieties of mushrooms with potential to inflict serious harm to pet parents and their pets.
Wild mushrooms can grow in backyards as well as in parks and undeveloped spaces such as parks and trails. These mushrooms grow quickly when exposed to damp conditions and are quite difficult to remove permanently. Pet parents with mushrooms growing on their property should do a regular, thorough evaluation daily and/or consult a mycology (mushroom) expert. Even with prompt attention mushroom toxicity cases come with a grave prognosis, so prevention is essential.
Depending on the variety ingested, size of dog, and time elapsed since ingestion, the signs of toxicity may vary. Common signs may include, but are not limited to:
- Wobbling/loss of balance
- “Drunk” walking (ataxia)
- Yellow skin/”whites” of eyes
- Rapid heartrate (tachycardia)
There is generally not enough time for identification before action needs to be taken, so consider mushroom ingestion a true emergency. Seek medical advisement as soon as possible. While some outdoor mushrooms may be edible, it often takes a mycologist to accurately identify the mushroom and the toxic potential. If a physical sample cannot be obtained, photos of the cap and stems are beneficial. Contact a poison control center or veterinarian immediately.
More information about mushrooms can be found here
Sago palms are popular landscaping plants in the Southern US and have gained popularity nationwide thanks to houseplant and bonsai sized offerings available at nurseries and home improvement centers. Also known as coontie palms, cardboard palms, or zymias, the plants contain a toxin called cycasin which can cause liver failure within days. If a body’s liver is incapacitated, blood cannot be detoxified. The build-up of toxins affects the central nervous system and can cause neurological concerns.
As with lilies, all parts of the sago palm are considered poisonous, but its seed (nut) is the most dangerous. Cycasin works quickly, with clinical signs displaying as quickly as 15 minutes after ingestion in dogs, cats, and horses. Initial signs of sago palm ingestion include, but are not limited to:
- Lack of/loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Fluid accumulation in abdomen
- Black, tar-like stool
- Bloody nose and/or gums
- Neurological concerns (seizures, tremors, paralysis)
At this time, there is no definitive blood test or liver value diagnostic which pinpoints the plant as the culprit. Lab tests may support a diagnosis of sago palm toxicity, however, reporting exposure to sago palms will help a veterinarian in a diagnosis and allow treatment to begin quicker.
Although not a poison, VREC receives calls about snake bites (especially in warmer months.) Pennsylvania is home to over 20 different snake species. Three species are venomous: Eastern Copperhead, Timber Rattlesnake, and Eastern Massasauga. All venomous snakes found in Pennsylvania possess key indicators: vertical eye pupils (similar to a cat’s eyes), an indentation on each side of the head between the eye and nostril, and a single row of scales on the underside of the tail.
Pennsylvania’s venomous snakes are generally nonagressive but will not hesitate to fight back if threatened. Snake bites usually occur while a pet (or person) attempts to advance on or handle a snake. If a pet is bitten, remain calm and contact a veterinarian for further instruction. Keep your pet as immobile as possible until seen by a medical professional. VREC stocks antivenin, an anti-venom product which counteracts the dangerous effects of snake venom. In order to utilize antivenin, it must be administered no more than a few hours after the bite.