Medical Update - Life Threatening Substances

BirchBark Foundation medical update is intended to have vital information for pet families with the goal of keeping their pets happy, healthy and thriving.  I try to have guest bloggers offer up guidance that I cannot provide, like behavior guidance or orthopedic recommendations. 

Last week as I listened to a client tell me the story of her friend who lost her dog after he ate baked muffins with xylitol (low calorie sugar) from the counter, I thought it is time to write a reminder of life threatening substances.  PLEASE share these warnings with your pet owning friends as it could be the difference between life and death.


1.  Xylitol is a sugar alcohol used to sweeten foods with less calories for diabetics and weight loss. In dogs it causes a massive release of insulin and life threatening low blood sugar.  Signs can occur within 30 minutes and include weakness, seizures and vomiting. Dogs that survive the initial low blood sugar episode may develop liver failure.  PLEASE know that many gums, toothpastes, sugar free foods and even some peanut butter contain xylitol.  READ LABELS AND SPREAD THE WORD

2.  Metaldehyde (snail bait) is often used by gardeners particularly in decorative gardens. Pet families should be aware that dogs will eat it and it causes life threatening tremors and seizures.  In the past we have seen dogs who ingest the bait from someone else’s garden or pet families do not realize their gardener has used such a substance.  Spring time is a common time for exposure which will result in head then whole-body tremors often progressing to seizures that can bring the body temperature above 108 degrees and threaten the brain. Some snail baits (sluggo) contain a different ingredient:  iron phosphate which is not toxic to dogs.

3.  Ethylene Glycol (antifreeze) is toxic to dogs and cats who will lap it up because of the sweet taste.  We see more toxicity of this in areas where freezing temperatures cause people to use it in their car engines in the winter.  Ethylene glycol (EG) is metabolized to toxic substances that damage the kidneys and cause acute kidney failure.  After initial exposure the pet may look drunk - thirsty, stumbling and nausea as the substance functions like alcohol.  One to 3 days later the kidneys will shut down causing irreversible damage which may require dialysis if pets are going to survive.  If you have ANY suspicion of exposure to EG in your pet an emergency room visit is warranted.

4.  Prescription medications are the number 1 cause of calls the ASPCA poison control line.  BirchBark Foundation has assisted in the care of 2 patients this year who accessed medications causing medical emergencies.  Play it safe and keep all medications - human or veterinary away from your pets.

5.  Plants of concern this time of year:

a)  Lilies which are toxic to cats causing kidney failure.

b)  Grass blades which can become lodged in the throat and nose.

c)  Foxtails which can migrate through foot wounds, the nose, lungs, ears and eyes.

d)  Mushrooms should always be on the list- though more of a risk in the fall the death cap mushroom can be ingested and cause acute liver failure any time of year.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM