Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Don't Lose Your Pet to Ethylene Glycol

Pet Column for the week of November 24, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

With the cold, cold temperatures of winter come higher anti-freeze sales-and more ethylene glycol poisonings. Preventing exposure could mean life or death for your pet.

Ethylene glycol is a chemical that is very toxic to most mammals. It is most commonly used as anti-freeze: most of the commercial automobile radiator products are 95 percent ethylene glycol. Exposure to ethylene glycol anti-freeze is not only through products added to cars. Ethylene glycol anti-freeze may also be present in pipes and toilets in homes or cabins that have been "winterized" as well in the fluid that is present in the base of some portable basketball hoops. It is used to de-ice airplanes.

Ethylene glycol is also used at much lower concentrations in other products, including some latex and acrylic paints, inks, cosmetics, and snow globes. It's possible that exposure to these products could affect your pet, but it is unlikely. Animals would have to ingest large amounts for signs to occur.

"A lot of the toxicity depends upon the species," says Dr. Camilla Lieske, a veterinary toxicology resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. "People, cats, and rabbits are the most sensitive, but ethylene glycol is also a serious problem for dogs. Birds, horses, or cattle could also be affected. One teaspoon of 95 percent ethylene glycol can be lethal to an average 8-pound cat! One-and-a-half tablespoons can be lethal to a 10-pound dog."

"The sweet taste-it has been inappropriately used as an additive to sweeten wine-of ethylene glycol has been a problem with children as well as pets. To deter children or animals from drinking anti-freeze, companies have added compounds to try to make it less tasty. Unfortunately, this doesn't always stop dogs-they often are not picky about what they eat!"

The body breaks ethylene glycol down into other chemicals. Some of these chemicals form crystals in the kidney, causing it to stop functioning, which eventually brings death.

"Between 30 minutes to 2 hours after exposure animals start to act drunk. They have trouble walking and act depressed. Vomiting is often seen during this time frame. Animals may seem to recover but 12 to 24 hours later they start to have severe problems and are really sick. Unfortunately, this is the stage when veterinarians are often first asked to examine animals and a fair amount of damage may already be done. Owners may delay seeking treatment because they do not know the pet has been exposed or they think the pet has recovered," explains Dr. Lieske.

Several tests can be done at the veterinarian's office to see if your pet has been exposed to ethylene glycol and try to quantify how much. The best results from the ethylene glycol test occur within a few hours after exposure, but even at 12 hours post exposure the test may have value. This test was designed for dogs and does not work well in cats. Cats are more sensitive to ethylene glycol and so a negative result may be misleading. Changes seen in a blood chemistry profile can also be used to indicate exposure.

Anti-freeze contains dyes so it will glow under a black light or Wood's lamp to show a mechanic where leaks in the engine are located. Using a fluorescent lamp, veterinarians can see if any dye is on your pet's muzzle or paws or in the pet's vomit or urine.

"If the condition is caught early enough, treatment can be very effective. Vomiting can be induced if the exposure is caught within 30 minutes. If enough ethylene glycol was eaten, the animal will need veterinary attention. The goal of treatment is to block the metabolism to the harmful chemicals. This may be through an alcohol solution or other medication. Supportive therapy to protect the kidney is also done. Once the kidney is severely damaged, the prognosis is grave," states Dr. Lieske.

Prevention is the best medicine in this case. "Safe" anti-freeze products composed of propylene glycol are available. It takes larger quantities to cause problems, and these problems do not result in kidney failure. Place any car products on high shelves out of the reach of pets and children. If you winterize your home or cabin with anti-freeze, do not let your dog drink from the toilet!

"When changing auto fluids, use caution. Clean up the area well afterward and do not throw the rags in the trash. Dogs and cats love to dig through the garbage and can become exposed through contact with rags. Also radiators flushed outside put wildlife and roaming pets at risk," warns Dr. Lieske.

If your animal starts acting strange or drunk, act immediately. Take your pet to the veterinarian! Peace of mind is better than a lost pet. For more information about ethylene glycol poisoning, contact your local veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 1-888-4ANI-HELP (1-888-426-4435; note: there is a $45 consultation fee).