Resolutions to get healthier in the New Year can lead to dangerous exposures for our pets!

By Jo Marshall, CVT, NREMT
Senior Veterinary Information Specialist

This is the time of year that we all try to make resolutions to get healthier in our lives. Sometimes it is to lose weight and other times it is to stop smoking or to get more exercise.  And that makes this is the time of the year that we  see an increase in exposures to weight loss drugs/supplements and to nicotine patches and gums. So I thought I would share some of the concerns that we have when we get calls from pet owners whose dog or cat has just gotten into their supplements or nicotine replacement products.

Weight Loss Supplements: Some of the ingredients in these products include caffeine (especially if they are labeled to boost energy), green tea and green tea extract (more caffeine), green coffee extract (again, more caffeine), a herbal ingredient called guarana (again caffeine), a type of orange called bitter orange that contains the compound synephrine that is related to  the stimulant, ephedrine, ma huang (a stimulant that can contain ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and even phenylpropanolamine), xylitol (an artificial sweetener), along with many other miscellaneous herbal and  fiber ingredients.

So let’s break these ingredients down into the concerns that we have with each one:

Caffeine: Amazingly, we can see the caffeine content of up to 200mg per tablet in some of these energy support supplements. That is enough to result in caffeine toxicity in a 30 pound dog with a single tablet! Caffeine exposure can result in vomiting, agitation, panting, pacing, and increases in heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature along with seizures and even irregular heat beats. Imagine that 30 pound dog getting a handful of those pills! That would be a serious enough dose to result in death.

Green Tea, Green Tea Extract and Green Coffee Extract: All contain caffeine. The hard part is finding the amount of caffeine in these products as many supplements do not list the quantity or it may be a proprietary ingredient for the product. There are many times combinations of these ingredients in the supplement, so one can assume that there is a significant amount of caffeine.

Bitter Orange or Synephrine: is a stimulant. When the FDA banned weight loss products that contained ephedra, many manufacturers began to add bitter orange instead. It can result in an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature, agitation and potentially cardiac arrhythmias. When combined with caffeine or other stimulants, it can exponentially increase these clinical signs.

Ma Huang: is an herb that contains the stimulants ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. Incidentally, the FDA banned supplements with ephedra as an ingredient because of the increased risk of strokes and heart attacks in people. But these ingredients are still found in Chinese herbal supplements and weight loss teas. When ingested by our pets, they act much the same as any of the other stimulants and cause agitation and hyperactivity, increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature.

Xylitol: is an artificial sweetener that can result in a drop in blood sugar and potential liver damage or even liver failure when ingested by dogs. It has recently been in the news for causing death in several dogs that ingested products containing xylitol. It can be found in many diet related products because it sweetens without adding calories. Every label should be checked for this ingredient because it is so harmful to dogs.

Fibers and other miscellaneous ingredients are in abundance in weight loss supplements.  These need to be evaluated individually for potential harm based on the specific ingredient and the dose ingested along with the health and age of the pet that has ingested the product as these can all be variables in determine that toxicity of each particular  ingredient.

Now let’s move on the nicotine replacement products. There are five FDA approved nicotine replacement therapy products that include gum, transdermal patches, lozenges, nasal sprays and inhalers. They are all different in the dose and ingredients that they contain and dose is the determiner for toxicity risk.  There are 2 main ingredients of concern with nicotine replacement products. The first ingredient of concern is obviously nicotine and the second is the xylitol content.

Nicotine is generally the primary ingredient in all of the nicotine replacement products. The amount of the nicotine can vary greatly. We can see gum that is 4mg per piece to nicotine patches that are over 50 mg each. Nicotine, in any of these forms is rapidly absorbed. We can see clinical signs of toxicity in 15 to 90 minutes. Common signs of nicotine toxicity consist of vomiting, drooling, agitation or lethargy, and ataxia or drunken appearance, most common followed by increases in heartrate, respiration rate and blood pressure. Tremors, diarrhea, dilated pupils, collapse, cardiac arrest and death can also occur with large enough ingestions.

Xylitol is again a common ingredient in the nicotine replacement products and the label should be read thoroughly in the event of exposure to any of these products.

So there you have it, our quest to get healthier can put our pets at risk. These products are best to be kept far out of reach of both pets and children. In the event of an unexpected exposure, Pet Poison Helpline® is available 24/7 to assist you in determining the level of concern and care that may be needed.