By: Charlotte Flint, DVM
- Everything can be categorized as either toxic or non-toxic.
There is a famous saying in toxicology – the dose makes the poison. There are many substances that are helpful or harmless in small amounts but can be toxic or even deadly in larger doses. Water is a classic example of this concept. Water makes up a large percentage of our body and we require water to live, however every year a small number of people die after overdosing on water and developing fatal electrolyte imbalances.
Another good example is chocolate. Many people know chocolate is “poisonous for dogs”, but this is another situation where the dose makes the poison. The amount and type of chocolate ingested and size and health of the dog are all factors that determine if the chocolate exposure will cause a dog to become ill or not. Two ounces of dark chocolate most likely would not cause any symptoms when ingested by a 150 lb Great Dane; however that same amount of chocolate would be life-threatening if ingested by a 3 lb Chihuahua.
- My pet ate something that could be poisonous but seems fine, so I have nothing to worry about.
Some toxins are absorbed rapidly and have symptoms that appear quickly, like alcohol or nicotine, but there are many other toxins that could take hours to days before symptoms begin. Some symptoms can be very difficult to watch for at home, like a change in heart rate or blood pressure, and some toxins can affect the internal organs with no symptoms until after damage has already occurred. It is also important to remember that many pets, especially cats, tend to hide their symptoms until they are very ill. Early intervention is more effective and less costly in the long run than waiting until noticeable symptoms develop. It is always safest to consult with your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline if you are concerned about a possible poison exposure with your pet.
- If it is safe for me, it is safe for my pet, and if it is safe for my dog, it is safe for my cat.
The bodies of cats, dogs, and humans are alike in many ways but there are also important differences. One of the most obvious differences comes back to dose – there is a big difference in the size of grown human as compared to a cat or Chihuahua. A pill meant for an adult human will often be an overdose if ingested by a cat or dog.
Additionally, dogs and cats sometimes can be sensitive to substances that are harmless to people, so it is not safe to assume that if it is safe for you, it is also safe for your pet. Dogs and cats can also have species-specific sensitivities to certain toxins. For example, dogs can develop kidney failure from ingesting small numbers of grapes or raisins, though these fruits are certainly safe for humans. Lilies are extremely toxic to cats but not harmful to dogs or people.
- The internet is a fail-safe source of information about pet poisonings
While there is certainly some good information on the internet about pet poisonings, unfortunately there is also a lot of bad and even dangerous misinformation. There are websites with dangerous suggestions and many more with poorly researched or anecdotal information that cannot be trusted, although their authors may be well intentioned. It is always best to verify your online research with a veterinarian, especially before giving your pet any medication or other home remedies that you have read about online.
- All poisonings are dangerous, and nothing can be done if my pet was poisoned.
Not all poisonings are dangerous. There are many substances that might seem toxic but result in no symptoms or only mild symptoms. The substance ingested, dose, and health of the pet are all factors when determining the severity of a toxin exposure.
If your pet has ingested something toxic, in most cases the prognosis is good with treatment. If caught early enough, we can often prevent symptoms from developing by inducing vomiting and/or giving activated charcoal to prevent the substance from being absorbed. Some toxins have an antidote, and medications can be used to counteract the effects of other toxins. The veterinarians and toxicologists at Pet Poison Helpline are always available to help you and your veterinarian if your pet has ingested a poisonous substance.