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

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Our Daily Toxins: Common Household Pet Toxins

Pet Column for the week of June 26, 2006

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

Today pets are often living as and are treated as a member of the family. Yet as pets move indoors and become members of the family there are also some dangers that warrant examining. Many foods and toxins used daily by humans can pose a serious hazard to your pet.

The other day I was in a gourmet dog treat bakery and flipped a bag of cookies over to read the ingredients; there, plain as day amongst the ingredients, was garlic. Garlic and onions are members of the Allium genus and can be hazardous to your dog or cat's health. In small amounts your pet should be fine, but should your pet ingest a large amount of onions, the results could be serious. Garlic, onions and other members in the Allium genus can cause oxidative damage to the red blood cell membrane, resulting in hemolysis, or the rupturing of red blood cells.

Red blood cells serve a number of purposes, but perhaps most importantly, they transfer oxygen to the necessary tissues throughout the body. Therefore, if your pet's red blood cells are damaged, your pet suffers from oxygen deprivation. In addition, substances released from the red blood cells can damage to the kidneys.

Macademia nuts, while a seemingly benign treat for humans, can initiate a toxic reaction in dogs. Your pet may develop a transient hind-limb weakness that can be resolved with the appropriate treatment from your veterinarian.

Recently, ingestion of grapes and raisins has been associated with the development of acute renal failure in dogs. "At present, there are more questions than answers on this hazard for dogs," says Dr. Petra Volmer, a veterinary toxicologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Urbana, Ill.

"Any canine exposure to grapes and/or raisins should be taken seriously, and a veterinarian should be contacted," adds Dr. Volmer.

Chocolate contains a number of chemicals, including the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. When consumed by dogs, serious effects such as hyper-excitability, tremors, rapid heart rate and seizures may develop. The richer the chocolate, the more dangerous it is to your pet. Dark chocolate and baker's chocolate contain higher concentrations of these dangerous chemicals, posing a very serious and potentially lethal problem for dogs.

Antifreeze is a staple in event the least well-stocked garage. Most automotive antifreezes contain ethylene glycol, which seems to have a palatable taste to animals. Initial signs of this type of poisoning are lethargy and an appearance of "drunkenness." Secondary metabolites of antifreeze are toxic to an animal's kidneys, resulting in renal failure. This is a very serious poisoning that is often difficult to diagnose, and must be treated immediately to protect the animal.

Anti-coagulant rodenticides are commonly used to kill mice and rats. Unfortunately, they can have the same effect on your dog or cat. Anti-coagulant rodenticides are vitamin K inhibitors; they act by preventing the factors that clot blood. An animal that suffers from rodenticide toxicoses will literally bleed to death. These poisons were designed to be palatable to rodents, and are likely to be as equally appetizing to your pet. Pet owners should err on the side of caution and place rodenticides out of the reach of their animals.

As pets move closer into our lives it is inevitable that they will come in contact with the products used daily by humans. While it isn't necessary to live in fear for our pets, it is important to be aware of the common pitfalls. Though they may feel like part of our family, it is important to remember that humans and our pets are physically very different. What's good for humans isn't always good for our pets.

If you suspect that your pet has ingested something that is potentially toxic, immediately contact your local veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888/426-4435.