“The biggest things we hear from pet owners is that they didn't know something was toxic, or they didn't realize how a small amount of something could be problematic,” says Dr. Erica Hellestad, a veterinarian at Whole Pet Veterinary Clinic in Madison.
From cleaners to grapes to plants, there are multiple items in your home that could be problematic for your pets. We chatted with Erica to compile a list of the most common toxic items you might not know about and to provide what you can do if your pet should ingest one of them. Since March is National Pet Poison Awareness Month, we’d like to take this time to provide information to help pet parents keep their fur babies safe.
Whole Pet Veterinary Clinic receives one to two calls per week about possible pet toxicity, according to Erica. But not every case needs treatment, depending on what and how much was ingested.
Typically, the clinic sees younger dogs and cats for pet poisoning because they are more likely to get into things. “Dogs are more likely to ingest things they shouldn't,” Erica says. “We all know how hard it can be to get a cat to take meds, even when we are hiding them in something tasty.”
While medications and certain foods seem to be the bigger vices for dogs, plants tend to be the most common culprit for cats, she points out. When a pet suffers from poisoning, you may see such signs as vomiting, lethargy or excitability, and twitching.
If you’re not sure about the toxicity of the item your pet ingested, call the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) hotline at (888) 426-4435 or your vet.
Whatever your pet has gotten into and ingested, Erica advises pet parents, “Please be honest with your vet. Things like marijuana toxicity have some pretty classic symptoms, and it saves a lot of time (and likely money) if you are honest with us up front versus us having to guess at what is going on.”
Each year, the APCC compiles a list of the most commonly reported pet toxins. The top two pet toxins in 2020 were over-the-counter medications and human prescription medications, respectively.
Medications like Ibuprofen, cold and flu medicines, and vitamins and supplements were found by pets in a variety of hiding spots as well as backpacks and purses, according to ASPCA’s website.
To protect your pet from these common dangers, keep all human medications in childproof packaging in a closed cupboard your pet cannot reach. If you have medication in a purse or backpack, make sure to either keep the bag out of your pet’s reach or make sure the medicine is in a securely closed pocket of the bag.
The clinic has even had clients whose pets teamed up to get into trouble! Erica tells a story of a family whose cats knocked medications off the counters and then the dogs ingested them. Be careful prepping medications and don’t leave them unattended on the counter – especially if you have curious and agile cats or even dogs!
“Don't give human meds to pets without guidance from your vet,” Erica adds.
Human food ranks third on APCC’s list of top pet toxins in 2020, with chocolate taking the fourth spot. Yes, chocolate is food, but because the APCC handles so many cases involving chocolate exposure -- nearly 76 cases per day – it earned its own spot on the list.
Foods as small as grapes or raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs, according to the ASPCA website. And if a dog ingests enough chocolate, it can cause panting, tremors, seizures, and even death. Since dark chocolate has a higher cocoa content, it’s more dangerous than milk chocolate because less pieces need to be eaten to cause toxicity.
“Don't leave foods unattended on tables/counters,” Erica says. “As a pet owner with small children, I try to avoid having things like grapes, raisins, etc. in the house. If we do have them, I tend to either put the dogs outside or in their crate until the kids are done eating.”
“Lots of people are unaware something like a pack of sugar free gum can cause big problems,” says Erica, “so make sure to keep out of reach of pets and kids!”
That’s because gum, as well as some candies, peanut butters, and baked goods, contain the sweetener xylitol. Xylitol can cause insulin release that can lead to liver failure within days, according to the ASPCA.
Some of us may be guilty of sharing a salty snack like potato chips or popcorn with our pets, but the ASPCA cautions against feeding pets salt-heavy snacks. Large amounts of salt can cause sodium ion poisoning in pets and eating too many salty foods can lead to tremors, seizures and even death.
For a list of people foods to avoid feeding your pet, click here.
Plants can add life and color to a room, but for some pets, they can become a stomach-upsetting temptation.
“There are a lot of plants that can cause a bit of GI upset but aren't truly toxic,” says Erica. However, she notes, “Lilies are incredibly toxic to cats -- even just ingesting some pollen can put them into kidney failure. Best to not have them in the house at all.”
Make sure you check the plant’s toxicity to pets before bringing it home or keep such plants in a room that your pets don’t access. If you’re unsure of the type of plant in your home, take a photo of it. There are several Facebook groups and apps out there that can help identify it.
Some pet rabbit owners might consider giving them vegetation from their yard; after all, the Eastern cottontail rabbit eats barks and twigs during the winter. But DCHS Senior Animal Caretaker Joan Johnson says pet parents shouldn’t feed their rabbits branches from outside unless they’ve researched it and dried those branches out. If the sap is still wet, many branches are poisonous to rabbits, she says.
To search the ASPCA’s list of toxic and non-toxic plants, click here.
When cleaning your home, make sure the area cleaned is dry to the touch before allowing pets access to the area, Erica says. And just because the cleaner says it’s "all natural" doesn't mean it is safe for pets.
“Fumes and scents can be problematic for our pets too -- they have a much more sensitive sense of smell,” Erica says. “Cats are really sensitive to certain essential oils used in some cleaners.”
That being said, essential oil diffusers could poise issues for your pet as well, depending on the oil’s concentration and if your pet has a history of breathing problems. Even a scent that seems light to pet owners may be overwhelming to cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and birds, according to the ASPCA.
According to the APCC, however, using an oil diffuser for a short period in an area your pet does not access shouldn’t be an issue.
While pet parents may use bleach to clean toys and cages, the ASPCA reminds users to rinse these items thoroughly and air them out before giving them back to your pets. If the smell becomes overwhelming while using bleach, open the windows or turn on a fan to help air the room.
Like medications, keep cleaners in a closed cupboard or closet that pets cannot access.
To read more about cleaners and their potential hazard to pets, click here.
As we get closer to spring and summer and the joys of yard work, Erica asks pet owners if they really need to apply fertilizers or pesticides on their yard. “Maybe a different type of ground cover would meet your needs better,” she says.
But if pet owners do choose to apply chemicals to their yards, Erica reminds them to follow directions on labels closely and don't shorten the time it says to deny access to pets.
Overall, the best practice in dealing with possible pet poisoning situations is prevention. Take a careful look around your house to identify potential problem items, store medications and cleaners in closed cabinets, or take other steps to pet-proof your home. As Erica shows us, your veterinarian is a great resource in identifying potential problems in the journey to making your home a safe haven for your pet. Open and honest communications with your vet before or during an incident will allow them to make recommendations and treatment plans quickly to save your pets.