Pet Poisons and Hazards Around the House

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Every household contains a variety of items and products that can be dangerous or even fatal if ingested by your dog, cat, bird or other pets. Every pet owning family should strive to familiarize themselves with certain products in several categories that are commonly found in any home, many of which can be toxic or harmful to your pet’s health. These potentially dangerous products that are found in most homes are items or substances that are commonly used in everyday living such as foods, human medications, insecticides, rodenticides, cleaning products, and other household items such as small items that fall to the floor and can be easily swallowed by a curious pet. I am reminded of the case of a veterinarian friend of mine who chose to leave her beautiful Shetland Sheep dog at home utilizing the services of a dog walker who came to the house three times daily to take the dog for a walk. Unfortunately, when the dog walker came to the house to let herself in, the dog came running out of the son’s bedroom where he stayed most of the time, and the dog walker did not notice that the dog had gotten into the son’s coin collection that included pennies that contain the metal zinc. That dog developed serious liver damage and eventually succumbed to the toxic effect of the zinc coated coins.

Many food products that are found on any family’s daily menu are perfectly safe for humans, but can be harmful or potentially deadly to pets. Of course the size and health status of the pet can determine how much toxic food they can tolerate, as well as the amount of toxic substance they may ingest. It is important to keep your pets away from kitchen items such as coffee grounds, chocolate, yeast dough, avocado, grapes and raisins, onions, tea, alcohol, salt, garlic or any chewing gum or candy containing xylitol. Xylitol, the artificial sweetener, is especially toxic causing a drop in blood sugar resulting in depression, loss of coordination and seizures. In most cases only a small amount of xylitol can be very toxic to dogs and cats. It may be proper to note that some peanut butter products are now using xylitol as a sweetener. Most dogs love peanut butter flavored treats, so be sure to read the label to see if xylitol is used as a sweetener in your peanut butter before you make your dog some peanut butter flavored popsicles for a summer treat. It is also a fact that dogs and cats have a superior olfactory sense, or smell capability, than humans. A perfect case in point is my own daughter who grew up spending much of her childhood in and next door to my animal hospital. She is very conscientious about the potential threat of human food products that may be dangerous to her pet’s health. Several years ago one of my daughter’s employees gave her a one pound box of chocolates for her Christmas present. My daughter, running late from work, went into the house and placed the beautifully wrapped and bowed package under the Christmas tree before she met her husband at a friend’s house for a Christmas Eve celebration. The family dog, with his extra-superior smelling capability was able to detect a deliciously smelling treat and proceeded to eat the entire box of mixed chocolates. My daughter’s family call that event “the chocolates that stole Christmas” as they spent all night Christmas Eve at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic and held the dog’s head in their lap most of the next day in between vomiting and diarrhea episodes. Fortunately, they were able to decontaminate quickly and the dog recovered after a dismal few days. It is best to keep the pets away from the kitchen while food is being prepared. Also, take precautions to secure all garbage cans as spoiled food can cause food poisoning with sometimes severe results.

The Pet Poison Helpline is an animal poison control service available throughout the United States and Canada that can be accessed by pet owners and by veterinarians on a 24 hour, 7 days per week basis for assistance in treating those pets who may have ingested or came in contact with a poisonous substance. It is very important to keep this telephone number with your pets medical records at all times in case of emergency. The Pet Poison Helpline can be reached at 1-855-289-0358. It is a good idea if you suspect your pet has eaten or has come into contact with a toxic substance to call your veterinarian and perhaps the Pet Poison Helpline as quickly as possible. The Pet Poison Helpline has determined that almost half of the calls they have received over the past 30 years have been concerning human medications—both over-the-counter and prescription medications. Sometimes dogs chew into pill bottles or well intentioned pet owners accidently mix up packages and give their pets a human medication. A common finding is a person will leave their purse containing human medications or a sack of items from the pharmacy on the floor and the dog or cat will help themselves to whatever is available. All pet poisonings from human medications, however they happen, can be serious. The ten most frequent human medications that can be purchased either by prescription or over-the-counter methods that may affect the health of your pet are:

1.) Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) such as Advil, Motrin or Aleve. While these medications ae safe for people, even one or two pills can cause serious harm to a pet. Dogs, cats, birds and other small mammals including ferrets, gerbils, and hamsters may develop serious stomach and intestinal ulcers as well as kidney failure.

2.) Acetaminophen or Tylenol. This drug, safe for children, is potentially dangerous for pets – especially cats. One regular strength tablet can cause damage to a cat’s red blood cells. In dogs, acetaminophen leads to liver failure and in large doses, red blood cell damage limiting their ability to transport oxygen.

3.) Antidepressants such as Effexor, Prozac and Cymbalta. Sometimes veterinarians prescribe these drugs for your pet; however, in large overdoses such as when your dog raids the medicine cabinet, can lead to serious neurological problems such as sedation, incoordination, tremors and seizures. Pets, especially cats, seem to like the flavor of Effexor and often eat the entire pill. Unfortunately, one pill can cause serious poisoning.

4.) ADD and ADHD medications such as Concerta, Adderall and Ritalin. These medications used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder contain potent stimulants. Minimal ingestions of these medications by pets can cause life-threatening tremors, seizures, elevated body temperature and heart problems.

5.) Sleep Aids such as Xanax, Klonopin, Ambien and Lunesta. These medications are designed to reduce anxiety and help people sleep better. However, in pets, they may have the opposite effect. Some dogs that ingest sleep aids become agitated instead of sedate. These drugs may cause lethargy, “drunken walking” and slow breathing in pets. In cats, some of these medications can cause liver failure when ingested.

6.) Birth Control Pills. These hormone laden pills often come in packages that dogs cannot resist. While small doses of these pills may not cause any harm, if taken in large amounts, they can cause bone marrow suppression, particularly in birds. Intact female pets are at risk of side effects from estrogen poisoning.

7.) ACE Inhibitors such as Zestril or Altace. ACE inhibitors are commonly used to treat high blood pressure in people and sometimes in pets. Large overdoses can cause low blood pressure, dizziness and weakness; however, most pets can tolerate minimal doses of these drugs.

8.) Beta-blockers such as Tenormin, Toprol or Coreg. These medications are used to treat high blood pressure but, unlike ACE inhibitors, small ingestions of these drugs may cause serious poisoning in pets. Overdoses can cause life-threatening decreases in blood pressure and a very slow heart rate.

9.) Thyroid Hormones such as Synthroid. Dogs get underactive thyroid glands as well as humans. Interestingly, the dose of thyroid hormone needed to treat dogs is much higher than a human dose. Therefore, if dogs accidentally get into thyroid hormones at home, it rarely results in problems. However, large overdoses in cats and dogs can cause muscle tremor, nervousness, panting, rapid heart rate and aggression.

10.) Cholesterol lowering agents such as Lipitor, Atorvastatin, Zocor and Crestor. These medications, often called statins, are commonly used in the United States. While dogs do not typically get high cholesterol, they may still get into the pill bottle, thankfully, most statin ingestions cause only mild vomiting or diarrhea. More serious side effects come with long-term use, not one-time ingestions.

Many household cleaning products can be used safely around pets. However, cleaning products can be a hazard to the health of your pets, and the key to safe use is to read and follow product directions for proper use and storage. Most cleaning products have a label warning to “keep pets and children away from the cleaned area until it is dry.” If you follow these directions you will prevent most health issues for both your pets and your children while using cleaning products. Products containing bleach can safely disinfect many household surfaces when used properly, but can cause stomach upset, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea or severe burns if swallowed, and respiratory tract irritation if inhaled in high enough concentrations. In addition, skin contact with concentrated solutions of bleach may produce serious chemical burns. Some detergents can produce a similar reaction and cats can be particularly sensitive to certain ingredients. As a general rule, store all cleaning products in a secure cabinet out of the reach of pets and keep them in their original packaging, or in a clearly labeled and tightly sealed container.

As with household cleaners, read and follow all label instructions before using any type of pesticide or rodenticide in your pet’s environment. Flea and tick products, as well as fly and mosquito repellents, are required to have label restrictions if any apply. For instance, tick and flea products must be labeled “for use in dogs only” or “acceptable for use in both dogs and cats.” Be sure to follow these instructions carefully. Some dog flea and tick products are immediately fatal to cats and birds. This holds true for any application of pesticides used to rid your yard or outside buildings from fleas, ticks and other parasites that frequently attack pets. If a pet ingests rat or mouse poison, potentially serious or even fatal illness can result; therefore when using any rodenticide, it is important to place the poison in areas completely inaccessible to pets. Some of the newer rodenticides have no known antidote, and can pose significant safety risks to animals and people. There was a recent article in an Oregon newspaper relating how a newly acquired puppy was suddenly losing weight, lethargic, had pale gums and tongue and refused to eat as a puppy should. Upon presentation to a veterinarian, it was discovered the puppy to be extremely anemic and toxic. Rat poison was diagnosed and that puppy was decontaminated and lived to see another day. That is not always the case. Consult with your veterinarian about the safe use of these products for your pet, and call your veterinarian if you suspect your pet has been exposed to pesticides and rodenticides in unusual amounts other than label instructions.

There are other small items around the household that can pose a problem for your pets if they come into contact with those items. Buttons, coins, children’s toys, medicine bottles, jewelry, nails and carpenter’s screws can result in damage to your pet’s digestive tract and might pose the need for surgical removal of the object. Narcotics, especially marijuana and baked or cooked products that contain marijuana, can pose life-threatening risks to your pets if ingested. In some of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana, reports indicate the incidence of marijuana toxicity in dogs has increased five to six times over when marijuana was illegal in those states. Pets must be protected from those products.

Just like dogs and cats, most hazards listed in any document regarding the safety of pets should include birds, especially if they are allowed to fly or roam freely outside its cage and within the house. Birds have unique respiratory tracts that are especially vulnerable to inhaled particles and fumes from aerosol products, tobacco, some glue products, paints and air fresheners. Birds should never be allowed in areas where such products are being used, as in the bathroom when hairspray is being used. Birds should also be kept clear of the kitchen because smoke, cooking fumes and odors can present a potentially fatal hazard.

Time is of the essence in recognizing and beginning the decontamination process if you suspect your pet has been exposed to a toxic product. Decontamination products that include hydrogen peroxide, apomorphine, and activated charcoal used in proper dosages according to the weight and state of health of your individual pet can make a huge difference in a very short period of time. Call your veterinarian immediately and ask for instructions. Sometimes it is best to make the pet vomit and sometimes it is not a good idea because it might cause regurgitation of fluids into the trachea and lungs which can cause additional problems for you and your pet. Be prepared to provide your pet’s breed, age, weight and all symptoms. Keep the product container with you so you can help identify what might be the exposure so the appropriate treatment recommendations can be made. If you are unable to reach your veterinarian or an emergency animal clinic, call one of the two pet poison control centers listed below. A consultation fee may apply. Don’t wait!

Pet Poison Helpline: Telephone: 1-855-289-0358 ASPCA Poison Control Center: Telephone: 1-888-426-4435

Bruce W. Little, DVM