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Gasoline and Petroleum Toxicity in Cats

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Gasoline and other petroleum products are not among the top animal poisons, but they can cause illness if ingested or exposed to the skin. The most common petroleum products associated with illness include motor oil, gasoline, kerosene, propane and diesel.

Toxicity caused by petroleum products is based on the thinness and lightness of the product. Due to the ease of absorption, the thin, light products, such as gasoline, are more toxic than the thick, heavy products, such as motor oil.

Most petroleum products are readily absorbed from the skin and stomach. These products are irritants and cause redness and inflammation to the skin and stomach lining. If inhaled, they also cause irritation to the airways. The primary toxic agents in petroleum products are hydrocarbons, organic compounds that contain hydrogen and carbon only. The more hydrocarbons that are present, the lighter and thinner is the product.

The most common illness associated with petroleum product ingestion is burning of the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. This burning sensation can cause vomiting in some animals. As the animal vomits some of the petroleum can be inhaled into the airways, resulting in aspiration pneumonia. For this reason, inducing vomiting at home is not recommended. Animals that vomit on their own should be monitored closely for breathing problems. A few animals may develop serious neurologic signs including seizures, coma and death. It is possible that some of the hydrocarbons can be absorbed from the stomach into the airways, causing serious lung damage.

The amount of petroleum that needs to be ingested before signs of illness develop varies from product to product. For diesel fuel, about 18 mls (a little over 1 tablespoon) of fuel per pound of body weight needs to be ingested before the signs of diarrhea, vomiting and gastrointestinal upset are seen. For gasoline, 35 mls per pound needs to be ingested. For kerosene, 112 mls per pound needs to be ingested to reach toxic levels. After ingestion, most petroleum products are cleared from the body within 24 to 48 hours.

What to Watch For

  • Drooling
  • Shaking head
  • Pawing at mouth
  • Coughing, gagging
  • Incoordination
  • Muscle tremors
  • Staggering
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gasoline or petroleum smell
  • Reddened and irritated skin
  • Cyanosis (blue tinge to tongue and gums)

    Diagnosis

    Diagnosing petroleum ingestion can be difficult unless the owner witnessed the ingestion or exposure. If the animal vomits, the vomitus can be mixed with warm water. If petroleum is present, it will often rise to the surface. Chemical analysis of the vomitus is not typically performed due to cost and the length of time it takes to get results.

    Physical examination may reveal petroleum odor to the breath or to the skin. Burns may be seen in the mouth and throat. If toxicity is from topical exposure, the skin may be red and inflamed. Recommended tests may include:

  • Complete blood count

  • Biochemical profile to look for signs of liver or kidney damage. Some animals may develop low blood sugar.

  • Chest X-rays are recommended to look for signs of aspiration pneumonia or lung damage. Sometimes, the lung abnormalities may not show up on X-rays for 3 to 4 days after ingestion.

  • An electrocardiogram (ECG, EKG) is recommended for those animals with an abnormal heart rhythm.

    Treatment

  • If a small amount of petroleum is ingested, no treatment is needed. The animal should be kept calm and quiet to prevent vomiting.

  • If a significant amount of petroleum was recently ingested (within the past 2 to 4 hours), activated charcoal or gastric lavage is recommended. Gastric lavage is performed by passing a tube through the mouth into the stomach and introducing an irrigating fluid into the stomach. Then the stomach is emptied of the solution and the rest of the contents. This prevents the animal from vomiting and reduces the risk of aspiration pneumonia. Stomach protectants such as sucralfate (Carafate) and famotidine (Pepcid) may be recommended.

  • Animals that develop mild aspiration pneumonia need hospitalization, intravenous fluids, antibiotics, oxygen therapy and cage rest. Most affected animals recover quickly, but it may take 3 to 10 days for the breathing to return to normal. Some animals may experience a rapid onset of significant breathing problems. These animals have a guarded to poor prognosis and some may not survive the damage to the lungs.

  • In cases of topical exposure, bathe the pet in lukewarm water and mild dish soap. This will remove a significant amount of the petroleum from the skin. If the animal has a long thick coat, clipping the hair may be necessary to remove all the petroleum. If skin irritation has occurred, topical ointments may be recommended.

    Home Care and Prevention

    There is no home care for ingested petroleum products; call your veterinarian immediately. Do not induce vomiting. Try to determine the amount of petroleum ingested and the type of petroleum product. Watch for vomiting or breathing problems. Animals that do not show signs of illness in the 12 hours following exposure will probably not become ill. If mild breathing problems develop, these usually resolve in 3 to 10 days.

    For topical exposure, bathing in lukewarm water and mild dish soap can help remove some petroleum from the skin.

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