Renee DiPietro, CVT, Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator
Veterinary Information Specialist
If you and your pets are fans of outdoor recreation in the Pacific Northwest, there is a toxic creature you should beware. This placid seeming amphibian packs a self-defensive punch that can be deadly. He is the Orange Bellied Rough Skinned Newt. Making his home his home in coastal areas, he can be encountered by curious dogs and other pets. He prefers forested areas and is typically found near ponds. This large salamander is easily recognized by his bright orange underside and bumpy rough skin covering his upper half.
Having no spines, stingers, armor, or other obvious defense mechanism, this quiet forest dweller employs a powerful toxin to protect itself from predators. Tetrodotoxin is a neurotoxin that is present in the skin, viscera, flesh, eggs and ovaries of this animal. This is the same toxin found in Puffer Fish, the eggs of Horse Shoe crabs, and some octopi and starfish species. If this newt is disturbed a milky substance containing Tetrodotoxin can be released.
This is an oral toxin and when ingested can quickly cause dire consequences. Early symptoms including tingling and numbness of the lips and face, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain can occur within 15 minutes and up to several hours after exposure. These symptoms progress quickly to motor dysfunction and then to life threatening symptoms including difficulty breathing and paralysis. Some pets also experience neurologic symptoms such as tremors and seizures. Death from respiratory depression can occur within 4-6 hours.
If you find your pet harassing, biting, eating, or carrying one of these newts in their mouth, time is of the essence to try and prevent symptoms of toxicity from developing. While wearing gloves remove the newt from your pet’s mouth. Try to notice if any of the amphibian is missing and may have been ingested by the pet. The next step is to rinse out your pet’s mouth. Be careful to rinse the oral cavity but not force water down the throat. Immediately following this decontamination measure, or concurrently if you have a helper, call your veterinarian or a pet poison control line for further instructions and be ready to load your pet into the car (cats should be in a carrier) and head straight to your veterinary clinic or an emergency veterinary clinic if after hours.
At the clinic your veterinarian will evaluate your pet and decide the best course of treatment depending on whether any symptoms have begun to develop and the details of the exposure. Treatments may include decontamination measures and symptomatic and supportive care. The sooner you obtain veterinary care for your pet the better the chance for a positive outcome. Prognosis also depends on the amount of the toxin ingested, the weight of the pet, and the presence of any underlying health issues. Your veterinarian may also want or need to consult with an animal poison control center for guidance.
Prevention is an important and effective way to avoid your pet encountering the Orange Bellied Rough Skinned Newt. Keeping your dog on leash while hiking in the woods and confined safely in your home and yard can greatly reduce the risk of such and exposure. Likewise keeping your cat indoors to avoid these encounters and many other outdoor hazards is prudent.
The newt after all is simply attempting to protect itself and if left alone toxic exposure is significantly less likely to occur.
In an interesting development of biochemical defense, Garter Snakes that live in the same geographic area have evolved to be able to prey on these newts without being affected by the toxin. Garter snakes outside of the newt’s home range do not possess this protection. Neither do cats, dogs, or other pets.
Admiring this co-inhabitant of your landscape from afar and keeping your pets out of areas where the newt dwells is the best protection you can provide. “Good Fences make good neighbors” is a good adage to follow to prevent this slippery and potentially deadly situation from occurring.