We live our lives surrounded by various poisons and toxic substances, which can lead to potential illness in our pets. Poisoning is a common problem in dogs and cats due to their curious nature, indiscriminate diets and the intentional administration by a well-meaning owner.
Poison and toxin are terms commonly used interchangeably but do have slightly different meanings. A toxic substance is anything that causes abnormal body function. This includes overdoses of medications as well as poisonous substances. A poison is a substance that can result in abnormal body function and has no medical use.
Damage to the body is based on the amount of poison ingested and how long the poison was in the body before treatment. If treatment is immediate, many poisons do not result in significant illness. Some, regardless of how quickly treatment is administered, are fatal or result in permanent damage.
The effect of a poison is not always immediate. Some poisons do not cause illness for days, weeks or even years after ingestion but the most common poisons usually result in signs of illness within 3-4 days of exposure. Therefore, if you see your pet ingesting a potentially toxic substance, do not be lured into thinking he will be fine just because he does not immediately become ill. Every toxic ingestion is cause for concern and should prompt an immediate call to your veterinarian or local veterinary emergency facility.
Without witnessing exposure or ingestion of a poisonous substance, poisoning can be difficult to diagnose. Signs to watch for vary depending on the type of poison and type of exposure. Some poisons are inhaled and a few are absorbed, but the majority are ingested.
What to Watch For
- Lethargy or sluggishness
- Lack of appetite
- Stumbling or staggering
- Breathing difficulty
Diagnosing illness due to poisoning can be difficult if the exposure or ingestion was not witnessed. Sometimes, pets are treated based on a strong suspicion of poisoning and not a confirmed diagnosis. Due to the variety of poisons, specific tests to diagnose the exact poison are often not available. A high level of suspicion of a specific poison may be the only way to determine the best treatment.
If you suspect a poisoning, bring in samples of recent urination, defecation and stomach contents if your pet is vomiting. In a few cases, samples can be sent to a laboratory for confirmation of the poison. This confirmation usually takes several days so treatment for the suspected poison is usually already begun when the diagnosis is confirmed. For this reason, many people elect not to pursue the expense of extensive testing to find the exact poison.
Diagnosis can be made from the following:
- Witnessing. Diagnosing a poisoning is easiest when the ingestion or exposure is witnessed. Sometimes, you will find the evidence – medication packages, bottles, packages, trash or poisons – in the house or yard. Without known exposure, diagnosis becomes difficult.
- Diagnostic tests. Some poisons, such as antifreeze, have a test available to confirm its presence in the blood. Many poisons, unfortunately, do not have these types of quick reliable tests.
- Physical examination. Sometimes, a specific poison can be diagnosed or suspected based on physical examination findings or behavior of the pet.
- Routine blood and urine tests. Some poisons are diagnosed or suspected based on routine blood and urine evaluation. Some poisons are known to cause severe kidney damage, liver damage, electrolyte or mineral abnormalities. If these abnormalities are found on blood or urine tests, poisoning may be suspected.
- Antidotes. Another method is to administer an antidote and see how the pet responds. This is only effective if there is already a strong suspicion of a specific poison, there is an antidote available for that toxin and the antidote is given early in the illness. If the pet responds and improves with the antidote, poisoning can be confirmed. An example would be poisoning with anticoagulant rodenticides. If the animal has signs of bleeding, vitamin K can be administered. If the pet improves, the diagnosis is probably rodenticide exposure.
Unfortunately, definitive confirmation of a poisoning is not always possible.
All poisonings should be considered emergencies so call your veterinarian immediately. General treatment for poisoning is listed here. Some poisons have specific antidotes or require additional treatment.
Reducing Additional Absorption
By removing as much of the poison as possible, additional absorption can be reduced. For topical exposures, bathe the animal in lukewarm water with a mild dish soap. Inducing vomiting or gastric lavage (stomach pumping) can be used if the poison was ingested less than 2 hours before examination. Inducing vomiting should only be attempted in conscious, alert animals and only if recommended by a veterinarian. It is not recommended for those animals that ingest corrosive or petroleum based products or if the animal is already vomiting. Enemas can also be given to eliminate a poison that may be found in the feces.
The most common method used to delay absorption of a toxic substance is to administer activated charcoal. This works by binding the toxin and preventing further absorption. The toxin can then pass through the gastrointestinal tract. Cathartics and enemas are used to help speed the transit of the charcoal and poison through the intestines.
Intravenous fluids are commonly used to hasten the poison through the body. In certain situations, medications, such as mannitol or furosemide, may be used to accelerate excretion by stimulating the kidneys to produce more urine.
Reduce Continued Toxin Damage
There are antidotes available for certain poisons. Unfortunately, the antidotes are typically only effective early in treatment. If diagnosis and treatment are delayed, the antidote may no longer be effective. Some antidotes are quite expensive and may not be available in your area.
Some poisons or toxins that have antidotes include:
- Ethylene glycol
- Anticoagulant rodenticides
- Snake venom
Even if there is an effective antidote available, supportive care may be required. If the toxin has already started affecting body systems, hospitalization with intravenous fluids is recommended. Based on the symptoms and poison ingested, additional supportive care may include:
- Heat support
- Oxygen therapy
- Pain medication
- Anti-nausea medication
- Medication for vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ulcers
- Blood or plasma transfusions
- Seizure control
Despite all treatment, some poisonings are not amenable to treatment and the pet may not survive.
Home Care and Prevention
For most poisonings, there is not much you can do at home. Consult your veterinarian or veterinary emergency facility if you suspect your pet has been poisoned. For some ingested poisons, your veterinarian may recommend inducing vomiting before bringing the pet in for examination and treatment. Inducing vomiting of a toxic substance should never be done unless specifically directed by a veterinarian.
For topical exposures, bathing in lukewarm water with a mild dish soap can reduce further toxin absorption before the pet is examined and treated by a veterinarian.
The best home care is prevention. Keep all potential poisons safely and securely stored away. Do not allow your pet to roam. The best thing is to keep your cat indoors to prevent exposure to toxic substances.