Veterinary Q&A: Common toxins for pets

Originally appeared in the Seattle Times Tails of Seattle blog

Dr. Joe Musielak, an emergency-care vet at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, says five dog and cat toxins are most commonly seen in our area: chocolate, rat poison, slug bait, marijuana and antifreeze.

Chocolate: Most people know not to give chocolate to their pets. (Unfortunately, the pets either do not know or do not care about the dangers of chocolate ingestion.)

Animals metabolize theobromine -- the toxic principle in chocolate -- differently from the way humans do. Theobromine acts as a caffeine-like stimulant in dogs. To make matters worse, chocolate also contains caffeine and fat.

Most humans will stop drinking caffeine when they get a little jittery, but dogs do not seem to have an "off" switch when it comes to things they shouldn't eat, especially if there is fat involved.

The toxic substances in chocolate can act as a metabolic time bomb in your pet.

Initially, they just may seem a little hyper, but this can rapidly progress to vomiting, diarrhea, a dangerously rapid heart rate, seizures and death if sufficient amounts of chocolate are ingested and the dog is not treated appropriately.

Depending on how much your pet weighs and how much and what type of chocolate -- white chocolate (usually not toxic and only a problem with the fat content), milk chocolate, semisweet chocolate, dark chocolate, cocoa powder, cocoa hulls -- was ingested, home treatment may be possible.

Your pet's veterinarian will need to know your pet's accurate weight in pounds or kilograms (not a guess) and an accurate weight in ounces (again, REALLY not a guess) of how much chocolate or cocoa powder your pet ingested to make a good recommendation on treatment.

The toxic substances in chocolate can stay in your pet's body for several days, so depending on the amount ingested and your pet's response, the hospital stay may be a few days.

Rat poison: There are several different types of rat poisons that have different ingredients.

If you suspect your pet has eaten rodenticide, it is absolutely VITAL that you tell your pet's veterinarian the active ingredient in the particular rat poison. The treatments for the various classes are completely different.

The most common rat poisons cause uncontrolled bleeding if ingested.

If caught early enough, these "anticoagulant" rat poisons actually have an antidote in the form of vitamin K. Unfortunately, it is not a form of vitamin K that you can buy over the counter. The form available over the counter WILL NOT WORK. Additionally, vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin and therefore can be overdosed if you're just "winging it" at home.

If not caught early enough, your pet may need a lengthy hospital stay and require plasma or whole-blood transfusions.

Other types of rat poisons cause seizures until the animal dies, or act as a massive overdose of vitamin D (another fat-soluble vitamin), which causes kidney failure.

Unfortunately, some rodenticide companies are making products that contain more than one of these types of poisons. They are effective against rats and other mammals but much more challenging to treat.

Slug bait: In the spring when people start to garden, we see a rapid increase in slug-bait poisoning. This one is particularly heartbreaking to witness.

It is so very preventable.

Slug baits that contain the chemical metaldehyde cause severe seizures in pets. The pet, if untreated, usually dies of the seizures or associated high body temperatures, which can reach 107F or more.

If you notice these symptoms in your pet or find that your pet has eaten this product, do not "wait and see." Your pet will need to be hospitalized and treated aggressively if you wait until the seizures start.

I have had clients report that the seizures started within 30 minutes of ingestion and others claim that it was 24 hours before they noticed the seizures.

Avoidance is the best way to treat this poisoning. There are "safer" slug baits available that contain iron phosphate. They are slightly more expensive than the ones containing metaldehyde, but not when you compare this with the monetary cost of treatment and the emotional cost of seeing your pet seize uncontrollably.

I enjoy gardening and only use the slug bait containing iron phosphate. My pets do initially seem interested because the little pellets rattle in the container like dog or cat food, but once it comes out, they smell it and give me a look that says, "Oh, it's this uninteresting stuff again," and they leave it alone -- even Dexter, our lab.

Marijuana: When we see a dog come in with dilated pupils, staggering and dribbling urine, one of our first thoughts is marijuana.

Many parents have learned of their kids' or even spouses' drug problems when the dog gets into the hidden marijuana.

One of our big battles with this is people not wanting to admit what their pet got into. Just tell your vet so he or she can administer the correct treatment.

This toxin is treated with the standard decontamination and supportive care. We try to make the pet vomit (difficult at times because the active ingredient in marijuana has anti-nausea properties), administer activated charcoal and hospitalize on IV fluids until the symptoms improve.

Death from marijuana ingestion is statistically rare but possible. The severity increases dramatically when the dog eats an entire pan of brownies containing marijuana. (Remember, marijuana is an appetite stimulant.)

The reason it is SO important to know if there is a possibility that your pet has been exposed to marijuana is that some of the symptoms resemble those from our next toxin.

Antifreeze: Sweet-tasting antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, which is converted into another substance in the body that shuts down the kidneys. If untreated, even a lick or two can result in a miserable death that isn't very quick.

This is another toxin that you don't want to "wait and see" on. If you wait for symptoms to occur, you have waited too long and death is likely.

Your pet will need to be hospitalized and put on IV fluids. If this is caught early enough, there are two antidotes. Of course, the more expensive one works the best.

Recently, some specialty hospitals in our area have been using hemodialysis on these patients, and more pets are surviving this poison.

Even without dialysis, treatment for antifreeze poisoning is expensive. You can expect to spend $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the size of your pet and the length of the hospital stay.

The important thing to remember with ALL of these toxins is that your pet will NOT learn to avoid the toxin in the future if they are exposed once. They will ingest these poisons again and again. WE are the ones who need to learn and keep these and all toxins out of reach of our pets.