At the San Francisco SPCA Veterinary Hospitals, we get hundreds of calls each year from concerned pet owners who think their animal may have ingested something hazardous. Poison Prevention Week, which starts on March 21 this year, is an opportunity to learn about potential dangers and what you can do to keep your pet safe.
Did you know that when it comes to toxins, some of the biggest hazards are in your own home? The majority of poisonings are caused by pets accidentally ingesting prescription and over-the-counter human medication. Always make sure your medications are stored securely out of your pet’s reach, and don’t forget about those that might be stored in places like purses, backpacks and nightstands.
Human food is the second most common cause of pet poisonings. In most cases, pet owners give their animal something toxic without even knowing it could be dangerous, but naturally pets will also accidentally ingest dangerous food that they find at home or on their walks.
Chocolate is one of the most common problems, it contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which are toxic to dogs and cats. Even a small amount of a cocoa-based product can make an animal very sick.
Xylitol, which is widely used as a sugar substitute, is extremely toxic to dogs. It can be found in products like candy, baked goods, chewing gum, some types of peanut butter, and many supplements and vitamins. Always check the ingredient label before giving your dog any of these sweet treats. Just a small amount of Xylitol can cause dangerously low blood pressure, liver failure and sometimes death.
Onions, garlic, chives, scallions, shallots and leeks are part of the Allium family, and they are all poisonous to both dogs and cats. The signs of poisoning can have an unusually delayed onset and not be apparent for several days. Toxic doses can damage red blood cells and cause gastroenteritis, such as nausea, drooling, vomiting and diarrhea.
Grapes, raisins and currants can cause kidney failure in dogs. We don’t yet know what substance in grapes causes kidney failure, and individual dogs vary widely in how sensitive they are to this food. Some dogs appear to tolerate small doses, while others show signs of poisoning even after a small amount.
Hundreds of plants have been identified as producing enough toxic substance to cause a reaction in pets, from mild stomach upset to death. Always do your research before bringing new plants or flowers into your home. Some common toxic plants to be aware of include tulips, azaleas, sago palm, and oleander.
Lilies, which are popular this time of the year, are extremely dangerous for cats. Just a tiny amount, even a nibble on the flower or lick of some pollen, can be enough to cause fatal kidney damage. If you suspect your cat has come into contact with a lily, contact you vet immediately – every minute matters. Almost any symptom can be an indication of lily poisoning, including vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, lack of coordination or fever. If possible, try to bring a sample of the flower with you to the vet.
Rodenticides are extremely dangerous for both pets and wildlife. Dogs, and more rarely cats, will sometimes consume the poison if they find it. Rodenticides also present a danger when pets eat rodents who have ingested the poison. Never use rodenticides in your home; instead, prevent rodents by keeping your home clean, closing any openings to the outdoors, and, if necessary, storing food in plastic containers. Stay alert when you’re walking your dog outside, and try to keep him from putting anything in his mouth.
Keeping cats indoors will help keep them safe from rodenticide and many other dangers. Ethylene glycol, which is in many antifreeze products, has a sweet taste that attracts dogs. A very small amount can cause severe poisoning. Be aware of any antifreeze spills, as dogs will often lick the toxin off driveways. Ethylene glycol is sometimes in smaller concentrations in products like windshield de-icer, brake fluid, and motor oils.
The symptoms that pets display after ingesting something toxic can vary widely, depending on the substance. As a general rule of thumb, if you suspect your pet might have ingested something and you are not sure if it could be dangerous, contact your veterinarian as quickly as possible. The sooner you get help, the better.
Do this right now:
1. Check your household for the items and substances as mentioned above.
2. Store your veterinarian’s phone number in your cell phone contacts.
3. Look up the location of your nearest 24-hour emergency clinic, and save its phone number and address in your contacts as well.
4. Have your poison control hotline number handy.
You can contact the San Francisco SPCA Veterinary Hospitals at (415) 554-3030. We currently provide emergency services seven days per week at both of our locations: 8 a.m. until midnight at the Pacific Heights Campus, 2343 Fillmore St., and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Mission Campus, 201 Alabama St.
The Animal Poison Control Center is open all day, every day, for animal poison-related emergencies; call (888) 426-4435.
For more tips on how to keep your pets safe, follow the SF SPCA on Facebook (@sfspca) and Instagram (@sanfranciscospca).
Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA, is senior vice president of rescue and welfare at the San Francisco SPCA. Email behavior and medical questions to email@example.com.