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Shea Cox
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Dough Is A Don’t
Risks for dogs include obstruction and alcohol poisoning

My husband has recently taken up the delicious hobby of artisan bread baking. Although this is a pursuit my belly fully supports, it has reminded me of the dangers that raw bread dough poses for our pets. The risks are twofold. The first problem is that dough rapidly rises after ingestion and can cause life-threatening stomach distention and obstruction. The second—and potentially more serious—risk comes from the fermentation of the yeast, which can lead to alcohol poisoning.

Any species can be susceptible, but dogs are most commonly involved due to their often indiscriminate eating habits. Given the opportunity, many dogs will readily ingest bread dough during the process of rising, and because they snarf all that is available, they usually consume 1 to 2 loaves or a pan of rolls. They don’t think, “Hmm, I’ll just save this one loaf for later,” so they generally present with large amounts in their stomachs.

A common scenario is that the soon-to-be bread is placed on a counter to rise overnight, and the next morning the owner wakes to find missing dough and a symptomatic dog. I treated a Labrador for alcohol poisoning just this past weekend after he ate two pizza dough rounds. He stumbled into the hospital with his worried parents but went on to make a full recovery with treatment.

How does it happen?

The warm, moist environment of the stomach serves as an efficient incubator for the replication of yeast within the dough. The expanding dough mass causes distention of the stomach, which compromises blood circulation in the body. The continued distention of the stomach can also make breathing more difficult.

Yeast fermentation also produces ethanol (alcohol) as a byproduct, which is absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in inebriation and potentially life-threatening disturbances to a pet’s system.

What are the clinical signs?

Early signs can include unproductive attempts at vomiting, visible belly distention and increasing depression. As ethanol intoxication develops, the pet can stagger and become disoriented. Eventually, profound neurological depression, weakness, coma, low body temperature and/or seizures can be seen. Death is usually due to the effects of alcohol rather than from the stomach distention, however, the potential for the dough to trigger life-threatening Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV or “bloat”) or intestinal obstruction should not be overlooked. [See: Bloat, the Mother of All Emergencies]

How is it diagnosed?

Blood alcohol levels can be obtained through a laboratory, but are generally not used in a veterinary setting; a presumptive diagnosis is usually made based on history of exposure and presenting clinical signs. Other disease processes that can present in a similar way include GDV, other intestinal foreign bodies, ethylene glycol ingestion (antifreeze) and ingestion of antidepressants.

How is it treated?

Vomiting may be induced with recent ingestion in animals not showing clinical signs, although the glutinous nature of bread dough may make removal by this method difficult. In animals where vomiting has been unsuccessful, gastric lavage may be attempted (“flushing” the dog’s stomach with water while he is under anesthesia).

Cold water introduced into the stomach through a stomach tube during lavage may slow the rate of yeast fermentation and aid in removal of the dough. Surgical removal of the dough mass may also be required if a large enough amount has been ingested.

Pets that present with the additional signs of alcohol toxicity first need to be stabilized and have any life-threatening conditions corrected before attempts are made to remove the dough. Alcohol toxicity is managed by correcting metabolic problems, managing heart abnormalities and helping the pet maintain his normal body temperature. Fluid therapy is administered to help enhance elimination of the alcohol from the blood stream. 

Luckily, the dog I treated this past weekend did not require surgery. We supported him with IV fluids and took serial X-rays to monitor the passage of the dough, ensuring no complications developed. Aside from a pizza dough hangover, he made a full recovery in 36 hours.

As always, prevention is the best treatment: If you have a fabulous baker boy (or girl) in your home, be extra conscientious during the rise!

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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Submitted by Jen Febel/Avivagen | December 15 2011 |

Great article with important advice!

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | December 20 2011 |

Thanks, Jen! I appreciate the feedback and glad you found it helpful :)

Submitted by Tim | February 27 2012 |

Could alcohol poisoning occur from a dog eating cattle grain (ground barley, wheat, and corn)? There is no yeast involved, but could it still ferment in a dog’s stomach? About once a month my Heeler-Lab mix appears to get stone drunk. She becomes rather clumsy, looses all inhibition, and often vomits. She is usually a very smart and well behaved cattle dog that always stays within calling distance. However when she has one of her “episodes” she will wander, become unusually friendly with strangers, and will often land herself in the pound. After an episode, it usually takes her 2 or 3 days until she will follow commands again. All I can figure is that she is getting into the cattle feed.

Submitted by Shea Cox DVM | February 27 2012 |

Hi Tim! This does sound a bit suspicious for drunken escapades... although, like with anything medical, there can be other sources for her clinical signs.

But, if we just take into account cattle grain ingestion only, this could certainly cause it. You don't actually need yeast to create fermentation... fermentation of sugars (in this case, the grains) to ethanol (the alcohol) can happen with bacteria and enzymes that grow naturally in the mix under anaerobic (no air) conditions; the process of fermentation actually happens in the grain pile, not the stomach.

If you wanted to know for sure, it would be a really good idea to have a blood and/or urine alcohol level submitted by your veterinarian. It would be important to know so that you can make sure that there are no other potential hazards out in your environment (for example, certain psilocybin-containing mushrooms can cause a dog to have signs resembling drunkenness, but there are no mushrooms that will cause the dog to actually have ethanol in its urine.)

And most importantly, if it does turn out to be alcohol/ethanol poisoning, then you can work to keep her away from the source of exposure. She has been lucky so far as pets can actually die from this.

I hope this helps and thanks for your question!

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