Prevent Pet Problems in Paradise

Jon Geller, DVM, offers his farm animal health experience to readers to help prevent pet problems around the homestead.

How to prevent pet problems at the homestead. Even the most idyllic environment can present dangers for your animals.

How to prevent pet problems at the homestead. Even the most idyllic environment can present dangers for your animals.

Photo: Donald A. Higgs

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Jon Geller, DVM, shares tips on how to prevent pet problems around the farm. 

Heat shimmered up from the fields as Barbara gazed out her kitchen window, enjoying the bucolic scene before her. Two llamas were investigating a pile of grass clippings piled against the shed. A barn cat tight-roped along the top of the white picket fence toward the barn.

In the barn, Barbara’s husband, Ed, was servicing the hay truck, flushing the radiator so it wouldn’t overheat. A load of cocoa bean mulch was piled in the back of the truck, destined for the flower bed around the house. Barbara’s grandchildren squealed joyfully as they splashed in the new above-ground pool.

Barbara went back to mixing the batter for some chocolate cupcakes. The recipe she used included the latest sugar substitute that allowed her to keep the calories down for her diabetic husband. She frowned suddenly as she heard the skittering of mice across the plaster ceiling of her kitchen. She needed to replace the mouse poison she had in the pantry where the mice seemed to enjoy nightly feasts. As the beginnings of a headache set in, Barbara swallowed several Tylenol, not noticing the coated tab that rolled under the butcher block. Her new calico kitten wandered over to investigate.

Barbara headed out to do some weeding, forgetting that her Australian shepherd was still in the house as she left the glass pan of batter on the counter. Barbara’s garden was her pride and joy, and she even had some wine grapes growing on the trellis arch that protected the garden entrance.

Astute readers may be able to identify many of the hidden dangers for pets and livestock that lurk in this pastoral picture. Barbara and Ed loved their rural life, but had no idea their farm was fraught with risks for their animals or how to prevent pet problems. Poisonings are one of the biggest risks to pets and livestock living on a farmstead. Informed farmers and pet owners can avoid trouble before it starts by knowing the risks and eliminating them.

Treat Pet Poisonings – Fast!

In most cases, the first step in a case of suspected toxin ingestion is to get the pet to throw up. Hydrogen peroxide, in a few teaspoons (for a small dog) or tablespoons (large dog), can sometimes cause an animal to vomit, but an intravenous injection at your veterinarian’s office is much more reliable.

NOTE: When a caustic substance like lye or bleach is ingested, vomiting should not be induced, because the caustic substance can do significant damage to the esophagus on the way up.

Even if your dog or cat does vomit, only about two-thirds of the stomach gets emptied. The next step is to give an absorbent such as activated charcoal that binds up any material left in the stomach or intestines. Your veterinarian typically would keep this product on his or her shelves and would give it with the use of a large syringe or stomach tube.

Sometimes veterinarians will recommend stomach lavage, where the dog or cat is anesthetized and a tube is placed down into the stomach to rinse it out repeatedly. This procedure, although effective, is not without significant risk, since there is always the possibility of aspiration, where fluid and toxic materials go into the animal’s airways.

Finally, in cases of severe poisonings, intravenous fluids are required to dilute toxins out of the blood stream. This involves a hospital stay with constant monitoring, which may include a trip to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. Although this can require many miles and considerable expense, without this step there can be permanent kidney or liver damage, shortening the pet’s life.

Common Pet Poisons

Rodent Poisons

Anticoagulant rodenticides, commonly known by trade names such as D-Con, kill rodents by causing their blood to stop clotting so that they bleed out three or four days after eating the poison. These rodent poisons usually contain ingredients such as warfarin, brodifacoum or bromadiolone.

Unfortunately, dogs love the taste of these anticoagulants as much as rodents and experience the same life-threatening hemorrhage. Persistent and bored canines have been known to chew through cabinet doors or push refrigerators out of the way to get to it.

Cats are more selective, but they can experience similar problems if they eat mice that have already eaten the rodenticide. The signs of rodenticide poisoning can be subtle at first, but eventually include collapse from weakness and blood loss. An effective antidote can be given if the ingestion is detected right away (Vitamin K), but treatment after the pet starts to bleed includes expensive blood transfusions and hospitalization. It is imperative that any mouse or rat poison is absolutely unavailable to pets.

A newer generation of mouse poison containing bromethalin causes neurologic signs instead of internal bleeding, but can be life-threatening if ingested.

Recommendation: If you must use rodent poison, keep it absolutely inaccessible to your pets. But why not consider a cat? (See “Barn Cats,” GRIT, September/October 2006.)

Antifreeze

Dogs and cats enjoy the sweet taste of antifreeze, and it does not take more than a few teaspoons to cause kidney failure and death in a small dog or cat. After causing signs of drunkenness (staggering and unsteadiness), the alcohol derivative goes to work on the kidneys to destroy the tubules, where electrolytes and water are regulated. Within 48 hours, most pets that have ingested antifreeze are dead, despite the most intensive veterinary care possible.

If an animal does get into antifreeze, there is an antidote: grain alcohol. Given intravenously, alcohol will bind up the antifreeze, negating the effects. However, treatment must be started very soon after the antifreeze is ingested.

Great care must be taken to make sure there are no puddles of antifreeze on driveways or garage floors.

Recommendation: A newer formulation of antifreeze is made from a less toxic substance and is considered pet-safe. Get rid of the old stuff (safely) and go with the newer version.

Grapes and Raisins

Believe it or not, grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure and death in dogs, and, surprisingly, the toxic ingredient is unknown. Some dogs seem to be highly vulnerable to raisins or grapes, while other dogs can eat them without ill effects.

Dogs have gotten sick eating grapes off the vine or off the table. Wine-making sediment is also toxic. There is no specific antidote, but intravenous fluid therapy is required to avoid kidney failure and death.

Recommendation: Warn your friends and family that grapes and raisins can be fatally poisonous to dogs.

Xylitol

As a sugar substitute, Xylitol is becoming increasingly popular for low-calorie baking. Of course, dogs love the taste, but unfortunately it causes severe lowering of their blood sugar levels, much like an insulin overdose would. In our emergency hospital, we had a case in which an Australian shepherd ate a pan of cupcake mix made with Xylitol and another in which a daschund ate 12 pieces of gum made with Xylitol. Despite the best possible medical treatment, neither dog survived. Reports like this are not uncommon.

Recommendation: Keep all products made with xylitol completely away from your pets.

Cocoa Bean Mulch

In general, animals don’t bother mulch, but when it begins to smell like chocolate, they become interested. Cocoa bean mulch has become an increasingly popular item for gardens, attracting dogs, horses and cattle along the way. The mulch typically consists of cocoa bean hulls, a by-product of the chocolate industry. Damaged cocoa beans, cocoa bean bits and other plant parts are mixed in with the hulls and sold as mulch. The toxic principles in cocoa beans are caffeine and theobromine. It is possible for a dog or a horse to ingest a toxic amount of theobromine and caffeine if there is an excessive amount of cocoa bean in the mulch.

Dogs that eat cocoa bean mulch would probably start vomiting and develop diarrhea. That would soon be followed by an increased heart rate, unsteadiness, and finally seizures, coma and death. Horses might show signs of violent excitement and possibly death, if they ate enough. There is no antidote, but there are some medications that would lessen the severity of the signs if there is prompt veterinary care.

Recommendation: Who needs it? Plenty of other products are available without taking the risk of using cocoa bean mulch. If you have animals, choose a different option.

Swimming Pool Products

With the popularity and affordability of above ground pools, the exposure of pets to pool chemicals has increased in recent years. Some of the products commonly used include chlorine tablets, other chlorine-based chemicals, sodium bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide and muriatic acid. Most of these are strong acids or bases and are highly corrosive. They are used to adjust the pH, sanitize and clean the pool.

If possible, find out exactly what the pet ingested. Alkaline products like sodium bicarbonate can be diluted with milk or water, if milk is not available. Inducing vomiting is not recommended; charcoal is ineffective against acids and bases.

Similarly, household cleaning products like lye, bleach and drain cleaner are extremely toxic. Typically, a cat will walk through some spilled cleaner, then lick his foot pads and become poisoned. It is not uncommon for their tongue to practically erode away after they lick a small amount of a highly caustic material. These products must be securely stored in cabinets that are inaccessible to pets.

Recommendation: You must keep these products in covered containers safely out of reach to all pets and children.

Houseplants

The curious cat is usually the culprit here; for some reason, many cannot resist the temptation of nibbling on a few leaves, perhaps re-creating their “big cat in the jungle” evolutionary memory. Holiday plants are especially toxic, with Easter lilies leading the list. Poinsettias (in large amounts), philodendrons and spider plants can also be poisonous to pets.

Early emptying of the stomach by inducing vomiting, followed by charcoal and possibly stomach lavage is the treatment of choice, depending on what type of plant and the quantity ingested.

Recommendation: Many animals are completely uninterested in house plants, but if you have one who is, either keep the plant where it absolutely cannot be reached or give it away to a petless household. Plenty of non-toxic varieties will help you have the plant and animal kingdoms represented in your home.

Garden Plants

Many pet owners don’t realize that many of the plants in the garden or flower bed can be toxic to pets, who love to explore unfenced areas.

Many vegetables and flowers will only cause mild signs like vomiting and diarrhea, but some are toxic to the heart and could cause serious illness or death.

Recommendation: Do not allow pets to venture into the garden at all. Not only can pets ingest plants that are toxic to them, cats can develop a fondness for using the garden as a litter box. Toxoplasmosis found in cat feces can infect pregnant women, causing birth defects such as spina bifida. Fence your garden or your pets, but make sure the two don’t meet.

Medications

Many medications are coated or flavored these days, making them that much more tempting to curious and bored pets. One acetaminophen tablet can be fatal to a cat, and a handful of ibuprofen can seriously damage the kidneys of a dog.

With the advent of psychoactive medications, pets are getting into antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills. All of these can cause serious neurological signs and possibly organ damage. Other common pet toxicities occur when dogs swallow chemotherapy drugs or medications for heart conditions or high blood pressure.

Pet medications can also be toxic when large quantities are ingested. It is not uncommon for dogs to chew through an entire plastic bottle of chewable arthritis medication, which contains a potent anti-inflammatory that can cause fatal kidney damage. Cats will knock bottles of medication onto the floor, where their canine “partners in crime” can finish off the job by devouring the containers and their contents. It can not be stressed enough that medications must be securely stored in cabinets with doors.

Other Potential Pet Toxins

The list goes on, and includes chocolate, snail bait, ant and roach killer, and mushrooms that you might find growing on the lawn, to name a few. Fortunately, evolutionary pressure has created the tendency for dogs and cats (and people for that matter) to throw up when they ingest something toxic. That often is not enough to ensure their survival, so conscientious pet owners, especially those living in a rural setting, must make sure there is nothing accessible to their pets that may be poisonous. They also need to recognize when their pets may require serious veterinary care to save their lives if they do ingest something toxic.

Freelance writer, emergency veterinarian and pet-owner Dr. Jon Geller lives with his family in Fort Collins, Colorado.