Our Pets and Toxins


The other day I covered an emergency shift at the hospital.  I noted that 2 of the dogs were there for toxicity ingestion.  One had enjoyed a box of chocolate truffles, which resulted in vomiting, increased heart rate and the need for intravenous (IV) fluid support.  The other had consumed an entire bottle of flavored chewable arthritis medicine intended for her canine sister.  The dose was more than 3x the toxic dose for her kidneys and required a few days in the hospital on IV fluids for her as well.  So, I thought it might be time to remind people that the common sense we use to decide our actions does not extend to our pets.

 Cats less often get in trouble with inappropriate ingestion. However, I have used my endoscopy equipment to pull from the feline stomach my share of holiday ornaments, hair ties and just last weekend an electrical cord.  Cats are more discerning for what they put into their mouths, however, very playful cats will end up accidentally swallowing thread, string or other linear objects particularly when they catch on the sandpaper tongue of cats. 


One of the first areas to examine is under the tongue of a cat that presents for vomiting- a string will catch under the tongue while the intestines are trying to move the string through the intestines.  We call this a linear foreign body. It will create an accordion effect on the intestines with a potential for the foreign material to saw through the intestines and warranting emergency surgery to remove it.  Cats will sometimes drink cleaning solution and irritate their mouth and esophagus, or eat poisonous flowers, which can irritate the throat. 


Important this time of year is knowing that ingestion of plants from the Lily family can cause acute kidney failure in cats- so do not let your cat chew on flowers you bring into the house.  Lastly anti-freeze, which results in ethylene glycol toxicity, is an important thing to avoid. Anti-freeze can leak from the radiator of cars and it is a sweet tasting solution. Ingestion of a very small amount can result in acute kidney failure and death.  Immediate medical care is needed to save the life of these pets as the substance is converted to a toxic form in the body over the first 12 to 24 hours after exposure.  Alternate sources of anti-freeze are available for pet owners. Knowing that your pet may have been exposed to this substance is crucial to preventing potentially terminal illness.

Dogs are a bit less discerning in what they are willing to put into their mouths, so may require a little more “house-proofing” to keep them safe.  The number one toxicity for dogs is human pharmaceuticals so be sure your blood pressure, anti-inflammatory, and other medications are kept out of reach.   Dogs can be crafty in their ability to get things off the counter including chocolate, raisins, and medication.

Our new concern in the industry is xylitol, the sugar-free option being used in gum, mints and peanut butter.  This sweetener causes a significant release of insulin from the pancreas and life-threatening low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Dogs have died from consuming a batch of cookies made with xylitol and cats can also be affected. 

Marijuana toxicity is another concern as the brownies or cookies taste as good to our pets as to us.  If you think your pet has been exposed to a toxic substance, then the ASPCA poison control website: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control is a great resource.  Calling your veterinarian or the closest 24-hour emergency hospital is very helpful. Try to have the information about the medication or substance consumed, how much was consumed, your dogs’ weight and how recently your pet has been exposed to it.  

The staff at most 24-hour hospitals can help you determine the degree of the emergency.  Sometimes the weight of the dog and the amount of ingested material is “safe”.  There is actually a published “chocolate wheel” that helps determine what is a safe amount for dogs- dependent on the weight of the dog, amount consumed and whether it is milk or dark chocolate -we can tell people whether a visit to the ER is needed.


If the exposure is recent, inducing vomiting to help remove the toxin from the body can be indicated, as long as the substance will not be caustic to the tissues in the mouth or throat. Remember to err on the side of safety in keeping potentially harmful substances from your dog.

Being an advocate for the health of your pet and taking part in preventative and proactive medical care is part of what we at BirchBark Foundation support, whether through education, community building or financial grants for those whose pets are experiencing catastrophic or life threatening situations.  We hope the information on this website helps each reader to be a better advocate for their pet and that the community of Santa Cruz and Monterey county continue to support the mission of BirchBark foundation.

Blog Post Author:
Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM