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?
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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!