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During our emergency hours, I receive many a call that begins “my pet ate …” followed by the questions, “Is this harmful?” and “Do I need to bring him or her in?” Many of these inquiries are about substances that are not necessarily toxic, and I often give the recommendation of letting your pet remain happily at home.
I have compiled a list that represents the most common “nontoxic” toxins that I am asked about on a regular basis; knowing these may actually save you a trip to your veterinarian.
1. Silica gel packets: Packed with everything from vitamins to new clothes to protect against spoilage, silica gel packets are commonly ingested or chewed by dogs. Silica gel is chemically and biologically inert. If ingested, mild gastrointestinal (GI) signs are possible. Main risk: The packets can potentially cause an obstruction in the intestines if the whole packet is swallowed, especially in small dogs. (The packaging is often the biggest risk in the case of all these toxins. See note below.)
2. Oxygen absorbers: Found in packaged foods, oxygen absorbers contain iron powder, sodium chloride and carbon. By the time they are eaten by a pet, the iron powder has been converted to ferric oxide (rust!).
3. Ant and roach traps contain multiple active ingredients but at very low concentrations and are not likely to cause any significant clinical effects. These may also cause mild GI upset.
4. Birth control pill packets contain 21 tablets of estrogen and/or progesterone and possibly seven placebo pills. The hormone pills contain low levels of estrogen (less than 0.04 mg/tablet) and some contain iron. The levels of toxicity for estrogen are dosages greater than 1 mg/kg of body weight, and for iron, dosages of greater than 20 mg/kg. These levels are not often reached by ingestion of birth control pills. A 25-pound dog would need to eat about 300 pills!
Other current methods of birth control, such as the NuvaRing, contains 11.7 mg of a progesterone and 2.7 mg of an estrogen; ingestion of this product rarely reaches the 1 mg/kg toxic levels.
5. Toilet water with tank “drop-ins” can be corrosive in their concentrated forms (the actual gel or tablet) but are only mild GI irritants once diluted in toilet water. Drinking small amounts of toilet water should not be of concern. If your pet has raided the toilet and lapped up the bowl contents, you can dilute the toilet water that was ingested by encouraging your pet to drink his or her “normal” water or other fluids such as chicken broth.
6. Fertilizers containing salts of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium (N-P-K): In most exposures, these are only GI irritants. Be sure to check for added iron, insecticides or pesticides, which can increase toxic potential. If the iron level is greater than 5 percent, more significant effects may occur.
“Organic” Fertilizer/Bone Meal/Blood Meal products are very attractive to dogs, and the primary concern here is if there are any insecticides mixed in. Another concern is if the product is moldy or rancid, as animals can develop a bacterial gastroenteritis (a bacterial cause of vomiting and diarrhea) or develop severe tremors from tremorgenic mycotoxins that are found in moldy substances. There is also a risk of impaction in the intestines if a large amount is ingested.
7. Lawn treatment herbicides, in general, do not cause severe systemic signs when a dog or cat has access to an appropriately treated yard. Mild GI upset can be noted when the application is fresh, but less likely to occur once the product has dried.
8. Fire logs generally contain sawdust, wood chips, peanut shells, petroleum wax, ammonium chloride and potentially a metal, such as copper to produce flame color. Systemic toxicity is not expected but can cause GI upset and pose obstruction risk.
9. Poinsettia ingestion causes mild GI upset only. The myth of the “deadly nature of the poinsettia plant” evolved from a 1900s rumor of an Army officer’s child dying after eating one leaf. Later, human studies revealed that a toxic dose for a 50-pound child is more than 600 leaves.
10. Glow jewelry contains Dibutyl phthalate, which has a very unpleasant taste. Signs you might note at home include drooling, hyperactivity and head shaking. Treatment includes giving a tasty treat and wiping off any liquid that remains on the fur. (Take your pet into a dark room to find any residual glow on the fur!)
11. Glue traps are commonly used to kill rodents and insects (and hopefully this will never be an issue in your home, as they are a cruel way of rodent control). Most contain benign attractants only, such as pheromones, and they are considered nontoxic. (However, it is important to make sure other substances have not been added, such as rat bait.)
If ingested, the risk is for an intestinal obstruction. If the animal has had exposure to its skin, the main concern is the method of decontamination. SOLVENTS SHOULD NOT BE USED! Instead, use vegetable oil, mineral oil or peanut butter to work the glue out of the fur and then bathe with dish soap.
12. Antacids: These over-the-counter medications commonly contain calcium carbonate, magnesium hydroxide and aluminum hydroxide; the main concern is for the development of vomiting, diarrhea and constipation. Verify that the agent does not contain salicylates. If the product contains salicylates, then you should call your veterinarian or local emergency clinic.
13. Human thyroid supplements overdoses are well tolerated by dogs due to poor intestinal absorption and differences in the way the medication is metabolized. Severe signs are not expected at dosages below 1 mg/kg in dogs. Higher doses can result in GI upset, hyperactivity, high blood pressure, lethargy, fast heart rate and an increased breathing rate. If these are noted, medical attention is needed.
14. H2 blockers, which include famotidine (Pepcid), ranitidine, cimetidine and nizatidine, are relatively benign and oral ingestion of greater than 10 times the therapeutic dose only results in mild GI upset.
15. Triple antibiotic and steroid creams only cause mild clinical signs, if any, as they are poorly absorbed orally. Vomiting and diarrhea may occur and you may see signs from the steroids (increased water consumption, increased urination, increased appetite and panting) but these are short lived and will be self-limiting. There is a risk of obstruction if the tube or cap is ingested.
The greatest risk of many of these “dietary indiscretions” is not from the substance itself, but from the packaging it is contained in which can cause an intestinal obstruction. Small dogs are at greater risk of developing an obstruction from packaging than larger dogs due to the smaller size of their intestines. For example, a silica gel packet can more easily move through the larger-sized intestine of a Labrador, than it can a Chihuahua. Clinical signs of a developing obstruction can include vomiting, diarrhea, painful belly, lethargy, and/or loss of appetite. If any of these signs are noted, seek care from your veterinarian immediately.
What about inducing vomiting at home?
We never recommend it for four main reasons:
1. Owners may misinterpret the ingredients and induce vomiting of a potentially hazardous substance.
2. There is a risk of causing aspiration pneumonia if not properly done.
3. There is a risk of an object getting lodged in the esophagus on the way back up, which causes another set of problems.
4. We induce vomiting by a simple small injection, which is much more pleasant for your pet than forcing a cup of nasty tasting hydrogen peroxide down his or her mouth.
One final word of CAUTION: The above guidelines are just that—guidelines—and any ingestion of any questionable substance should always be followed up with a phone call to your veterinarian or local emergency clinic. Anything can be dangerous in the right quantity—even water!