Guest Article: Pet Poisoning

L-R: Kalu and Killy

Brother and sister Kalu (left) and Killy (right) were recently lost to poisoning in Sandymount Pet Hospital.

Sandymount Veterinary Surgeon Miriam McEvoy gives advice on how to keep your pets safe from things that we humans give no second thought to eating or having around the home.

Recently at Sandymount Pet Hospital, we had a very sad case where one family lost two beautiful young cats to poisoning. This tragedy has brought pet poisons to the forefront, and coming up to Easter is a good time to highlight the issue as there will be a few of the usual suspect poisons hanging around.

It is not possible within the scope of this article to list all poisons and their symptoms, so we will aim to raise awareness of a few key poisons. A comprehensive list of poisons and other useful information is available on the Pet Poisons Helpline website. The effects a poison can have on an animal will depend on many factors, such as amount and type of product ingested, inhaled or absorbed. Poisoning symptoms can vary from can gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and diarrhoea, inappetence) to cardiac signs, respiratory signs, even coma, organ failure and at worst, death. While dogs are more likely to ingest a product, cats are more likely to have catastrophic effects as they have a very delicate metabolism.

When we think of poisons we might think of obvious products with a skull and crossbones living on a high shelf. However when it comes to pets, a poison could include something we would happily eat without a thought. Many signs of illness can overlap with other diseases but the key here is to recognise a few of the main culprits and link exposure with the signs.

Easter time brings us chocolate eggs, lily bouquets and hot cross buns. We will see more chocolate poisonings due to the availability of Easter eggs in every home. While poisonous to cats, we mostly see this problem in dogs as they are more likely to eat the chocolate. Pets are unable to break down the ingredient theobromine in chocolate, so it accumulates in their bodies. Depending on how much is ingested and the type of chocolate (where darker chocolate is worse) the signs can range from vomiting and tremors to seizures and death.

I mentioned hot cross buns in keeping with our Easter theme, to highlight the poisonous nature of raisins; of course it is quantity dependent. Many foods can be harmful to pets; a short list includes grapes, avocado, macadamia nuts, onions and onion powder in stock cubes, garlic, yeast dough, salt and coffee. Anything sweetened with xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs – a hundred times more toxic than chocolate, in fact! This is found in chewing gum, tooth paste, mints, and multivitamins to name a few.

If you have cats in the house you need to be on the lookout for bouquets containing lilies. These flowers are so toxic that they should not be in the same house as a cat. All of the plant is toxic. The cat might lick the plant or it may simply be brush against the pollen and later, licking it from the coat can result in acute kidney failure. Lillies can be encountered outdoors also. Other outdoor culprits at this time of year include crocus, daffodil, tulip, hyacinth and cyclamen. The bulbs are often dug up by dogs, though they would not have the same impact as the lily with the cat. Again, this is not a complete list.

Many human medications are unsuitable for our pets and sadly it is common to see human painkillers have detrimental effects in animals. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are especially severe. Acetominophen (paracetamol) is fatal to cats and must never be used. It is also toxic to dogs and overdose is common. There are very rare circumstances where a vet may need to prescribe a very low dose of paracetamol to a dog with persistent fever, but because there are safer drugs available, this is a last resort. A small dog getting one paracetamol tablet can be overdosed by fifty times, causing liver failure. Ibprofen (as found in common over-the-counter drug brands such as Nurofen) must never be given to pets and the same goes for Difene.

Stepping outside to our beautiful gardens we can, as aforementioned, meet poisonous plants and if you have pets it is always worth researching the members of your borders. Many lawn chemicals and moss killers contain products which are especially toxic to cats. Even products which claim to be pet safe can cause problems. If they say “Keep out of reach of children”, then it’s best to assume pets should also keep their distance. Even “pet-free” gardens can have a visit from a neighbouring cat who will go home and lick his paws. Be sure to observe all dilutions, wait times and rinse advice with these products. Pesticides such as snail and slug baits, especially if containing metaldehyde, are severely toxic to pets – they may even cause seizures. Rodenticides may contain anti-coagulant. This may be laid to keep rats at bay but they are very attractive to pets, birds and wildlife. They cause internal bleeding and can have very serious consequences. Please ensure they are in pet-proof containers. One last member of the garden shed that merits a mention due to its severity is anti-freeze. This contains ethylene glycol which tastes sweet to pets, and as little as a teaspoonful can be fatal to dog or cat, as it causes kidney failure.

There are even circumstances where drugs designed for pets can be toxic if used incorrectly. Flea products for dogs must never be applied to cats. Cats are very sensitive to all drugs and there are times when drugs suitable for dogs may be fatal. While dogs are more likely to ingest a toxin, cats are more likely to suffer catastrophic consequences. They have such tiny bodies and very different metabolism, with limited ability to break down toxins. Birds are also susceptible to household poisons, and one condition of note is “Teflon Toxicity”. The chemical polytetrafluroethylene found on non-stick cookware can cause respiratory failure and death in birds. Most problems occur at temperatures higher than normal cooking but there have also been cases at lower temperatures. Tobacco smoke, cooking oils and aerosols are also problematic to birds.

If you suspect your pet has encountered a poisonous substance it is essential that you phone us as quickly as possible so we can determine if we need to make the animal vomit or not. We might need to administer products to soak up the toxin and prevent further absorption down the gastro-intestinal tract. We could need to begin aggressive supportive therapy, including putting the pet on a drip in the hospital. Try to note how much product your pet has ingested and bring any packaging with you. Often with prompt attention your pet will be just fine.

The tragic fatal poisoning of a young brother and sister cat prompted this article to raise awareness. Those are the cases which break our hearts. We have of course had those who have lived to tell the tale and add a dash of humour, on which I would like to end. One case involved a Great Dane that ate all of his owner’s duty free cigarettes and while nicotine poisoning is very serious, prompt treatment ensured he made a full recovery. We also had a little dog that ate deadly nightcap mushrooms; these are even fatal to humans. She endured a long recovery involving some very specialist drugs, but has earned herself the right to the nickname “Iron Stomach” and she can now be seen running along Sandymount strand. It’s a jungle out there!

By Miriam McEvoy M.V.B M.R.C.V.S GP.Cert.S.A.P. Veterinary Surgeon

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