What are the Signs of Poisoning?

By Pamela Huyck
Certified Veterinary Technician at Pet Poison Helpline

Dog and VetA frequent question we hear at Pet Poison Helpline is, “What are the signs of poisoning?”  Similarly, we often get asked which poisons cause a particular sign (such as vomiting or seizures).  Unfortunately, the answers are not as simple as we would like.

There is not one sign or set of signs that indicate poisoning.  The signs that will be seen with a poisoning will depend on the type of poison the pet was exposed to.  Some poisons cause minor or severe gastrointestinal upset and we may see vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the vomitus or stools, loss of appetite, and ulcers in the GI tract.  Some poisons cause neurologic signs and we may see lethargy, agitation, tremors, seizures, decreased respiratory rate, and the pet may even lapse into a coma.  Other poisons can affect the cardiovascular system and cause a drop or increase in the blood pressure, a drop or increase in the heart rate, and abnormal heart rhythms.  Some poisons cause liver or kidney failure and some poisons can cause a combination of signs and affect more than one organ system.  While it certainly would be helpful if there was one universal sign that indicated poisoning, such a sign does not exist.

Additionally, signs that can be seen with a poisoning can also be seen in cases where a pet has not been poisoned.  There are many health conditions that affect pets and the signs caused by those health conditions can look very similar, or even identical, to the signs of poisoning.

Another question we are frequently asked is what poison causes a specific sign, such as vomiting or seizures.   Again, there is no one magic answer to those questions.  There are many, many causes for a given sign your pet may be experiencing.  Some possible causes of vomiting are a gastrointestinal infection, ingestion of moldy food, and  ingestion of a food your pet is not used to.  Seizures are also caused by many things including a seizure disorder (the cause may never be found), a head injury, a brain tumor, or exposure to one of many toxins.

If your pet is showing sings, but you do not know what your pet was exposed to, we can often work with you and your pet’s veterinarian to narrow down the list of toxins that may be causing your pet’s symptoms.  We can take a look at the signs the pet is displaying or has displayed, when the signs started in relation to each other, what toxins the pet could have been exposed to (if known), the geographical area the pet was in around the time the signs started (some toxins are fairly specific to a given region of the country), and results from any tests your veterinarian may have run.  When we put that information together, we can sometimes get a picture of what toxin, or class of toxins, is most likely to be causing the signs and from there we may be able to provide some more specific treatment recommendations for your pet.

One last note: Even if you don’t know what is causing your pet’s signs, or your pet was exposed to an unknown poison, your pet can still be treated by a veterinarian.  In many cases, pets can recover from receiving what is called symptomatic and supportive care, even if the toxin or cause of the signs is never determined.  (Symptomatic care means the pet is treated based on the signs it is displaying and supportive care is care that maintains the pet’s vitals, hydration, nutrition, etc.)