Spring is one of my absolute favorite times of the year. The arrival of new bulbs and blossoms breaking through the earth makes me giddy. It’s the official kick-off of another season in the garden and I look forward to the earth’s welcoming party. But spring also brings snails, followed close behind by the perennial gardening-season danger, snail bait.
Gardeners around the country use snail bait to keep plant-munching slugs and their ilk out of gardens, and it constitutes the most common poisoning agent in my community. Unfortunately, it’s extremely toxic when ingested by pets. During the spring and summer months, I treat pets poisoned by snail bait at least once a week.
The toxic substance found in snail bait is a compound called metaldehyde. Malicious poisoning is generally not the issue. The majority of toxicities are accidental, either due to lack of knowledge of its dangers or thinking that the compound has been properly stored or applied: Dogs are notorious for getting into things they shouldn’t or into places you think they can’t!
Snail bait is formulated in chewable pellets that are flavored with molasses, apple and bran to attract the snails. Unfortunately, our dogs find this a tasty treat as well. Snail bait is also available in liquid and powder formulations, which can get onto paws and be licked off with normal grooming. Additionally, many of these products also contain insecticides, which make the exposure potentially even more toxic.
Snail bait is highly toxic and even small amounts are enough to cause poisoning: less than a teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight can cause life-threatening clinical signs in your pet.
What are the symptoms of snail bait poisoning?
Signs of poisoning begin quickly after the bait is ingested. Generally, the first clinical signs observed are anxious behavior with mild twitching. This progresses to uncontrollable and severe twitching, followed by seizures and possibly death if not treated promptly.
Severe twitching equates to constant muscle contractions, and this can raise the body temperature so high that permanent brain damage can result. This clinical course has lead to the colloquial emergency room term of “shake and bake syndrome.” Click the link to watch a short video that demonstrates what mild clinical signs of snail bait toxicity look like.
Making the diagnosis
Generally, the appearance of the twitching patient is characteristic, and a diagnosis can be made even if there is no known history of snail bait exposure. A radiograph may be recommended to try to evaluate stomach contents. If this is a known exposure, remember to grab the package containing the snail bait so that your veterinarian can evaluate the active ingredients.
What is the treatment?
There is no direct antidote for snail bait toxicity and treatment is aimed at controlling the clinical signs. Treatment includes possible induction of vomiting, supportive care with IV fluids, medications to control the twitching or seizures, “stomach pumping” and enemas to help rid the body of the toxin, and charcoal to help absorb any substance that remains in the body.
At home, your yard should be hosed down with water to dissolve any remaining bait and your dog should be restricted from the area for a two-week period.
Will my dog return to normal following toxicity?
Chance of recovery is largely determined by how much poison was ingested, how quickly therapy was initiated and the general health of your pet. While this is a serious type of poisoning, most pets fully recover if treated promptly and properly. If your dog is not successfully treated, death can occur within 4 to 12 hours.
I love my dog, but I also love my beautiful garden—what are alternative ways to keep snails at bay?
For the above reasons, I do not use toxins for snail control in my yard; I try a more natural route and accept that some of my greenery will have “snail art” throughout the leaves. But I also realize that this approach is not for everyone, so, what are the options?
Wrapping self-adhesive copper barrier tape (available in many garden supply stores) around the rim of plant pots or containers deters slugs and snails with a tiny positive electric charge that is given off by the tape.
One of my favorite alternatives is to purchase predatory snails known as Decollate snails. These snails do not pose a health hazard to pets, birds or other mammals and they have been used in gardens and landscapes throughout the temperate regions of the United States for nearly 150 years. This famous predator snail comes out of the leaf mulch or soil at night and eats the eggs of slugs and snails as well as feeding on the young snails. The Decollate Snail can live for two years and lays a small amount of eggs on a regular basis so there should always be many new protectors in your garden.
You can also purchase various commercial snail traps. There are also many “home-made” snail traps options as well. For more information, watch this video demonstration of how to control slugs organically, helping to protect your garden without fear of harming your pets.
As always, prevention is better than cure and hopefully this article has raised your awareness of the dangers of snail bait. If an accident does happen, it is critical to seek veterinary attention immediately. If you suspect snail bait ingestion, please go directly to your veterinarian immediately as every minute counts!