March is Pet Poison Prevention Awareness Month. It’s scary when your pets ingest something they should not, but if you know what do when your pets get into something dangerous, you can potentially save their lives.
The Spruce Pets recently spoke with Dr. Tina Wismer, senior director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, to gather everything you need to know to keep your pet safe this Pet Poison Prevention Awareness Month.
This month—and all year—here are the steps you need to take to protect your pet from potentially harmful substances and spread the word to other pet owners in your life.
Know What's Toxic
Each year, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center releases a list of the top 10 pet toxins. Based on data from 2021, the following made the list:
The top two items on the list were human over-the-counter medications and human prescription medications. Medications can be especially dangerous because pets tend to be much smaller than humans and can more easily overdose. Pet owners may know to be cautious about food items that are toxic to pets, but they often forget to keep medication out of paw’s reach.
The ASPCA receives the most calls about these over-the-counter and prescription medications:
- cold medications
- herbal supplements
- heart medications
- ADHD medications
Although most ingestions are accidental, sometimes well-meaning owners give their pets human medications thinking it will help them, so it is a good reminder that no human medications should be given to a pet unless you have been advised to do so by your veterinarian.
“Keep all medications behind a closed door,” Wismer said. “We typically recommend keeping medications in the bathroom with the door closed, because if you drop the pill you will have time to search for it without your pet finding it first.”
Food products were third on the list of top pet toxins, with the following items found to be the most dangerous:
- macadamia nuts
Chocolate, coffee, and tea all contain substances called methylxanthines, which are found in cacao seeds as well as products containing caffeine. When ingested by pets, methylxanthines can cause vomiting, diarrhea, panting, excessive thirst and urination, hyperactivity, abnormal heart rhythm, tremors, and seizures. In severe cases, methylxanthines can be fatal. Darker chocolate tends to be more dangerous than milk chocolate, according to Wismer because it has a higher concentration of methylxanthines.
Onions, chives and garlic can cause gastrointestinal irritation and red blood cell damage. Cats are more susceptible to this toxin, but dogs are also at risk if they consume a large enough amount.
Xylitol, an artificial sweetener in many types of gum, candy, baked goods and toothpaste, can cause a dramatic insulin release in dogs, and can also cause liver failure. In dogs, the increase in insulin can lead to dangerously low blood sugar.
Grapes and raisins can cause stomach upset, lethargy, and acute kidney injury.
Macadamia nuts can cause upset stomach, ataxia (unsteady gait), and tremors.
If you know or suspect your pet ate something they shouldn’t have, it is important to act quickly. Some symptoms may take longer to appear than others, and certain courses of action, such as inducing vomiting, need to happen within the first few hours of ingestion.
Know the Signs of Poisoning
Common first symptoms of pet poisoning include:
- excessive thirst
- excessive urination.
For more information, go to The Spruce Pets’ “11 Signs of Poisoning in Dogs.”
Call a Veterinarian Immediately
First, get your pet away from the toxic substance, so they don’t ingest any more than they already have. Keep an eye on them and call your vet or a 24/7 pet poison hotline, such as the ASPCA Pet Poison Control Center. Once you share more details about what your pet consumed, their size, age, and other health conditions, a veterinarian or poison expert will be able to advise you on what to do. This may include taking your pet to an emergency hospital, administering an at-home remedy, or monitoring your pet over the next few days if the case is mild enough.
Do not attempt to induce vomiting without direction from a veterinarian, as some items can cause even more harm when they are vomited out. Note that several pet poison hotlines charge a fee for consultations.
Keep All Toxins Away From Pets
While nothing is foolproof, there are steps you can take to protect your pets before an emergency situation arises.
The best thing you can do to protect your pets is to prevent their access to dangerous toxins. Keep medications behind closed doors. Keep harmful food out of your pets’ reach and harmful plants on elevated surfaces, or better yet, out of the home. Be especially conscious of locations your cat may still climb to access. Pick up dropped food or medications immediately.
“Take a few moments in your house and get down on the ground and look around to see what would be enticing to your pet,” Wismer said. “This is especially important before you welcome a new pet into your house.”
Educate the other members of your household—especially children—of potentially dangerous substances so they do not accidentally expose your pet to something they shouldn’t consume.
Although prevention is key, accidents happen; it’s important to establish a plan of action to follow if your pet ingests something poisonous. Have easy access to your vet’s phone number, as well as an emergency veterinarian office for after hours and a 24/7 pet poison hotline. Know where the nearest emergency animal hospital is located and how to get there.
It is scary to think about your beloved pet ingesting something toxic, but by taking the right precautions, you might just save their life.