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Veterinary Group

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Pets & Poisons - Keeping your pet SAFE

Question: Over Christmas I had to rush my dog to the vet because he started drooling and vomiting. At the time we were unsure of the cause but on returning home found some mistletoe had fallen on to the floor and suspect he may have nibbled some. Are many common plants harmful?

Answer: There are indeed many harmful plants commonly found in the house and garden. Examples include yew, oak, laburnum, toadstools, irises and certain plant bulbs to name but a few. It should be borne in mind, however, that there are many other substances which can be poisonous such as antifreeze, chocolate, fertilisers, human medicines, insecticides, paracetamol, raisins, vermin poisons and weedkillers. This list is by no means exhaustive and the priority must always be prevention rather than cure.

If accidental access to poisons is prevented by proper storage under lock and key, and products such as insecticides, fertilisers and weedkillers are used carefully in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions, there should, in theory, be few risks while your pets are on your own property. To prevent poisoning in the home keep all medicines out of reach, preferably in a locked cupboard. Keep human and veterinary medicines separate and never give animals medicines intended for human use – only medicines prescribed by your vet. Some foods (e.g. chocolate, onions, and grapes) can be toxic – do not allow animals access to foods intended for human consumption. Restrict access to cleaning, DIY and car products (e.g. fuels, antifreeze and oils). Be alert and always read labels on products and follow their warnings about contact with animals.

In the garden or open spaces prevent access where pesticides or fertilisers have recently been used, especially slug pellets and rodent baits. Access to such baits can be reduced by placing them in narrow tubes. Never leave buckets or watering cans full of mixed chemicals. Do not allow animals to drink from ponds/puddles that appear oily or otherwise polluted. Be careful not to leave plant bulbs lying around.

The majority of poisonings occur either as a result of careless storage (particularly of medicines) or when animals are away from their own home or garden. Typical examples include dogs going into farm buildings or stables and eating spilled rodenticides, or cats visiting neighbouring gardens where slug baits have been left out in quantity. You may be very careful in your own garden, but neighbouring gardeners may well not be as pet-conscious.

A number of substances of low toxicity, however, may be found in and around the home such as Antacid tablets, Artificial sweeteners, Blu-tack® or other similar adhesives, Chalk, Charcoal, Coal (real or artificial), Cotoneaster species, Cut-flower/houseplant food, Expanded polystyrene, Folic acid, Fuchsia species, Holly (Ilex species), Honeysuckle, Matches, Mistletoe, Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) tablets, Pyracantha species, Rowan species, Silica gel, Wax candles/crayons. These plants/substances are frequently eaten by pets. If these are eaten it can generally be anticipated that there will be no clinical signs, other than drooling, vomiting and/or diarrhoea.

Although in many cases treatment may not be necessary, if you are at all concerned then contact your vet for advice. The pet should always have easy access to drinking water.

If you think your pet has been poisoned DO NOT PANIC. Remember, few cases have fatal outcomes and few poisons act very rapidly. It is important to realise that the symptoms of poisoning can be very variable, even for one particular poison. Signs can include abdominal pain, blindness, collapse, coma or sudden death, effects on the heart rhythm, convulsions, diarrhoea, difficulty breathing, incoordination, muscle tremors, paralysis, drooling and vomiting. In many cases it can be very difficult even for your vet to decide whether the cause of the signs is a poison, and circumstantial evidence may be very important in reaching a diagnosis. For example, fits or incoordination may be due to an epileptic seizure and vomiting may be due to a bowel infection rather than any sort of poison. Poisoning by plants tends to happen more often to young puppies or kittens who are not very discriminating about what they eat, but it is unusual for enough to be eaten to cause anything more than vomiting and diarrhoea.

Remove your pet(s) from the source of poison – protecting yourself if necessary. Any skin contamination should be washed off as far as possible, using just water if it appears to be water-soluble material, or a product such as Swarfega or a detergent if it appears oily. You should use a large volume of water to ensure that the substance is thoroughly washed away; otherwise you might accelerate its absorption into the skin by dissolving it.

Contact your vet for advice IMMEDIATELY, especially if your animal is unwell, and be ready to provide information on WHEN, WHERE and HOW poisoning occurred, as well as the QUANTITY consumed. If instructed to go to the practice, take a sample of the poison and the packaging with you. Prompt veterinary treatment is essential for all cases of suspected poisoning and you should not do anything which delays getting the patient to the veterinary surgery unless you have been given instructions over the phone by your veterinary practice. (Do remember to telephone before going to the surgery - there is no point in arriving at an unattended surgery with a critically ill pet.) If the pet appears cold (as might, for example, occur with rodenticide poisoning), keep it warm on the way to the surgery. Conversely, if the patient is overheated (e.g., if convulsions are continuing), you may need to use ice or cold water to keep the temperature down. If the skin is contaminated then wash thoroughly with WATER. DO NOT try to make the animal vomit – unless you are instructed to do so by your vet. Attempts may be made to induce vomiting if the poison is known to have been eaten very recently, but are not advisable if the poison is thought to be anything corrosive like creosote or petrol products.

In many cases the treatment of poisoning at the Surgery will be based on controlling the signs, such as convulsions. Specific antidotes may not be available or may not exist, but your vet will be familiar with the appropriate remedial measures to be taken for most common poisonings. In addition all reputable veterinary practices should be members of the Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS). The VPIS is a specialist 24 hour emergency service, which is only available to veterinary professionals, providing information and advice on the optimum management of actual and suspected acute poisoning in animals. This service will only be of benefit once pets have received a full clinical examination.

Treatment of an unknown poison may involve sedation or anaesthesia (if the patient is still fully conscious), and washing the stomach of the remaining poison; activated charcoal may be used to absorb as much as possible from the bowel. Intravenous fluids (a drip) may be needed to support the circulation and correct dehydration. In some cases, treatment may need to be continued for several days or longer. In some instances it may take a few days before the full effects of the poison are seen; for example, where damage has been caused to the kidneys or the liver, for example, by paracetamol. Rat poisons, which stop the blood clotting and cause death by internal bleeding, may take several days to show their effects. In some cases, the first sign of trouble may be laboured breathing due to haemorrhage (bleeding) within the chest cavity. The majority of cases of rodenticide poisoning involve young dogs. Cats are rarely affected because they are generally much more selective feeders. In many cases of poisoning due to rat poison, treatment with the specific antidote, vitamin K, is successful. Success, however, depends on early recognition of the signs and on the amount of poison eaten in the first place. In some cases poisoning can be caused by an animal eating the carcass of a rat which has itself been killed by poison.

If in any doubt about the possible effects of eating something unusual, the best advice is to contact your vet.