Protecting Pets From Common Toxins

While we’ve tackled this topic before, many of the most commonly seen pet poisonings are linked to the same products every year

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March is Poison Prevention Awareness Month! While we’ve tackled this topic before, many of the most commonly seen pet poisonings are linked to the same products every year. So let’s dive in and refresh our memories.


Recently, my wife and I picked up some dark chocolate covered pomegranate seeds at our local health food store. We figured they were not as bad for us as some other snacks, so we left them on the coffee table where we could easily grab a few, and satisfy our cravings for sweets. Several hours later, we heard the unmistakable sound of a Whole Foods container hitting a tile floor.

We looked at each other in disbelief. We rushed downstairs to find that Zohan, the good dog, had consumed about a half cup of these “healthy” treats. Put another way, this was about three times the lethal dose for a dog his size. We dragged him away from his conquest and into the yard, where we used hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting. Lots. And Lots. Of vomiting. When his ordeal was over and he was allowed back inside, he returned to the scene of the crime in search of more chocolate!

Despite his miserable post-binge experience, chocolate remains the one food for which Zohan will defy his training with reckless abandon. He will fixate on a tray of brownies. He will deftly pluck an Oreo from a child’s hand. I’ve even caught him trying to chew open a bottle of cocoa scented hand lotion. He does it for the same reason we all eat foods that are bad for us - it’s darn delicious, and frankly, it’s worth it! We have to watch him like a hawk.

I share this rather unflattering example of my shortcomings as a pet owner for two reasons. First, I feel like I’ve devoted a lot of past column space to sounding the alarm over chocolate. That being said, we still regularly see chocolate toxicity, as does nearly every practitioner in the country! Second, pet parents need to know that pets are unpredictable, and can easily take us by surprise.

My own dogs have caught me off guard and I know better. Nobody’s perfect. Chocolate contains theobromine, a compound that causes stomach upset, increased respiratory rate, dangerously high heart rates, seizures, coma and cardiac failure in both dogs and cats. If you suspect your pet has eaten chocolate, call your veterinarian right away. Be honest, and don’t be embarrassed.

Alcohol and Caffeine

Beer and fruit-flavored mixed drinks can be very attractive to dogs. Cocktails containing cream or half-and-half are irresistible to cats. Ditto for cafe con leche. Alcohol and caffeine toxicities are some of the leading causes of visits to the emergency clinic. Symptoms include respiratory depression, cardiac problems, and liver damage, so keep any adult beverages out of your fur-kid’s reach.

Garlic and Onions

Garlic and onions are species belonging to the allum family, a type of plant that while beneficial for humans, is not tolerated by dogs and cats.  Other common foods in this category include shallots, leeks, chives, and Chinese onions. Seasoning and spice packets are especially problematic as they contain very high concentrations.

Pets that ingest these foods often suffer from gastrointestinal distress. When these larger amounts are consumed, a life-threatening condition called Heinz body anemia can develop. Clinical signs include lethargy, inappetance, pale gums, increased respiration and collapse. Pets suffering from Heinz body anemia must be hospitalized and given blood transfusions in order to survive the condition.

Grapes and Raisins

These healthy treats contain a substance that has yet to be identified, but has been definitively linked to kidney failure in dogs and cats. Because they are often given to children as healthy snacks, it is important to make sure that the youngsters understand that they will make pets very sick.


Xylitol is a natural, sugarless sweetener found in many sugar-free candies, mints, chewing gums, and snacks. Those sugar-free gelatin and pudding snacks that kids love, probably contain xylitol and should never be shared. Additionally, xylitol is often used to sweeten vitamins, supplements, mouthwash and toothpaste! This is one of the many reasons pet owners are advised never to use their own toothpaste on their pets.

Clinical signs of xylitol toxicity include stomach upset, tremors, lethargy, collapse, seizures, and jaundice. Left untreated, the condition can lead to liver failure and death. Since items containing xylitol often find their way into purses, a good rule of thumb is to keep purses where pets cannot reach them, and instruct all guests to do the same.

Remember, these are only a few of the most common culprits in pet poisonings. If you think your pet has ingested a toxin, call your veterinarian immediately. You can also call the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661. As of the time of this writing, there is a per-incident fee for this service.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.

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