Kids: Health and Safety Risks to Pets

Jen Steckline, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist 
Pet Poison Helpline

There are many easy snack foods for kids which are also toxic to pets.  Raisins and grapes are some of the most common food calls we get at the Pet Poison Helpline.  Raisins and grapes cause kidney failure in dogs and cats and unfortunately, there is no known or well established toxic dose.  To be on the safe side an ingestion of 1-2 raisins or grapes is potentially toxic to your dog or cat and should be treated.  Those miniature boxes of raisins have 30-60 raisins per box so even if they only share a few, it is very concerning.  Also, beware of raisins hiding in trail mix, granola bars, fruit leather, bagels, cookies and other baked goods.

Since joining Pet Poison Helpline, I have realized two things – a holiday has either just passed or is around the corner and that holidays are almost always celebrated with chocolate.  Dogs LOVE chocolate.  Many of them even like the challenge of seeking out hidden chocolate.  Our most common calls around the holidays are about chocolate ingested from Easter baskets, wrapped Christmas presents, Halloween candy, and Valentine’s Day cardboard hearts. Many of my calls are dogs that went into a kid’s room, found a stash of chocolate, and ate it.  Pets also love baked goods, especially if they contain chocolate. Chances are they don’t have the will power to stop at one or two cookies, they will stop when the container is empty and all the crumbs are gone.  Chocolate can cause symptoms from mild GI signs (i.e. vomiting and diarrhea) to cardiac arrhythmias and neurological issues such as seizures.  If your pet ingests chocolate it is best to call Pet Poison Helpline for recommendations on whether your pet needs to be seen by their veterinarian.

Gum can be very dangerous to pets.  If your kids have visited a dentist or orthodontist they were most likely recommended to chew only sugar-free gum.  It is very common to see a sweetener called xylitol in most sugar free gums and most sugar free products these days.  Xylitol is very toxic to pets and causes rapid low blood sugar and liver failure.  This can become a life-threatening situation in as little as 15 minutes. Some of the most popular gums that contain xylitol contain enough in one piece to cause rapid low blood sugar in a dog even as heavy as 30 pounds! And in my experience dogs don’t usually stop at one piece! I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep gum in a safe place away from your pets or purchase types with a sugar-free sweetener other than xylitol such as sorbitol.

While I’m on the xylitol subject, keep in mind xylitol is now used in many sugar-free items such as toothpaste, Jello/pudding, candy, children’s medications, children’s chewable vitamins/supplements, cough-drops, probiotics, peanut/nut-butters, flavored waters/drinks, marshmallows, pacifier wipes, and the list keeps growing.  Keep this in mind when giving your pet treats like a spoonful of peanut butter because it may have xylitol hiding in the ingredients.

It is very common to get calls at Pet Poison Helpline for pets that have ingested a child’s ADD/ADHD medication.  Most of the time a tablet is accidentally dropped on the floor, the child can’t find it, and the day goes on. A couple hours later the family dog is having tremors and acting very abnormal.  These medications cause serious side effects such as high body temperature, increased heart rate and blood pressure, panting, and tremors/seizures.  It is important to stress the dangers of these medications to children that are responsible enough to take the medications on their own. Remind them of the importance of finding any pills that are accidentally dropped or alert an adult immediately if they witness a pet ingesting a medication.

Another medication danger is albuterol and albuterol-like inhalers.  Dogs like to chew on these puffers and when the container is punctured, they get all the doses at once in their face and mouth.  The medication of the entire inhaler is rapidly absorbed through their lungs and mucous membranes.  Within minutes, this causes negative effects on the heart including dangerously high heart rate, abnormal heart rhythm, blood pressure issues, and they can also develop muscle tremors.  If your pet has ingested or was exposed to any medication or supplement it is very important to seek advice from Pet Poison Helpline or your veterinarian.

While working as a surgery technician for many years, I assisted in removing many objects out of pets that didn’t belong.  Many of these pets had ingested small toys or kids’ socks.  I’m not sure if the pets get excited about fun little toys just like kids or if they taste good because kid’s sticky hands were all over it, but some dogs will swallow almost anything that fits in their mouths.  I am not just talking about dogs, cats love to ‘kill’ and ingest things too.  On multiple occasions we pulled dozens of hair ties out of cat’s stomachs.  The owners all said the same thing, “they love hair ties and have played with them for years. When they get lost I just assume they go under the fridge or furniture and give them a new one to play with.”  If you suspect your pet has ingested an object it is much easier and safer to deal with an ingestion as soon as it happens versus waiting until it becomes a life-threatening issue.

Some toys can cause other issues besides getting stuck.  If pets are chewing on kid toys with batteries, the punctured batteries can cause corrosive burns to the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.  Additionally, the small button batteries can be very harmful if swallowed.  Slime and Playdoh (especially homemade), even when small amounts are ingested, can cause pets’ sodium level to become dangerously high.

Just because there are so many kid-related products that seem very dangerous to pets, doesn’t mean kids and pets cannot successfully co-exist.  Discuss the importance of protecting your pets from dangerous things and make sure your children are comfortable telling you if they accidentally dropped something that may be toxic.  If your kids are too young to be responsible with toxins like a bowl of grapes, keep your pet in another room until they are finished and you have inspected the area for run-away grapes.  Baby gates are a great way to keep your kids and pets separated when playing with playdoh or other toxins.  Make sure kids know that just because their parents can’t find the hidden stash of Halloween candy hiding under the bed, doesn’t mean the family dog won’t use his amazing sniffer to ingest 12 pounds of Halloween candy the first chance he gets.

Even if you are extremely careful, accidents happen.  If you are ever concerned your pet ingested something toxic, please seek immediate veterinary care or call Pet Poison Helpline to see if the ingestion warrants a trip to the vet.