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

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Fall Hazards: How to Keep Your Pet Safe


Pet Column for the week of October 22, 2007


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

In neighborhoods around Illinois preparations for autumn and winter weather are underway and thoughts of apple picking, trick-or-treating, long walks with Spot and Fido, and other fall activities are beginning to enter our heads. Unfortunately, many of the things we use to tend to yards and gardens to prepare for the pending cold, to winterize cars, and to keep fall pests away contain substances that are toxic to pets.

As the dog days of summer leave us, the cool autumn breezes lead rodents and other pests to seek refuge in our heated homes. Dana Farbman, a certified veterinary technician at the Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, explains that the pesticides and rodenticides we use in our homes to rid ourselves of these unwanted pests could potentially be harmful, even fatal, to our pets.

"Unfortunately, rodenticides and pesticides may be just as attractive to pets as they are to rodents, making them especially dangerous to our cherished companions," says Farbman. "If owners decide to use any of these substances it is important that they place the poison in areas that are not accessible to pets and ensure that the packaging is kept intact so that they can provide accurate information to their veterinarian or to poison control in case of ingestion."

Certain rodenticides are sold as pellets or blocks, and may have blue, green or other types of dye added to them. Pet owners should contact a veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center immediately if they recognize something like this in their pet's stool or vomit.

However, unless pets are caught in the act it can be difficult for pet owners to know if their pet has ingested a rodenticide. And, unfortunately, signs of a problem vary depending on the type of product and the effect that it has on the body. Clinical manifestations of rodenticide poisoning in a pet can include weakness, bleeding or bruising, seizures, or even damage to the kidneys and other vital organs. If your pet is displaying any of these symptoms it is important to seek veterinary attention immediately.

Because many people winterize their cars early, antifreeze is another toxin common in the fall. Unfortunately, the toxic nature of antifreeze is masked by its bright color and sweet flavor that is often irresistible to curious pets and young children. The main ingredient in many of these products is ethylene glycol, a substance with a toxicity that increases dramatically when metabolized by the liver.

According to Farbman, it is important to seek veterinary care immediately if you suspect that your pet may have ingested antifreeze, as early treatment is imperative.

Owners should also be able to recognize the first signs of poisoning that often go unnoticed: a pet may appear "drunk," weak, or wobbly, especially in the hind legs, may appear lethargic and very thirsty, and may urinate frequently. Unfortunately, by the time these signs are present, the window for treatment may be closing. For this reason, you should seek veterinary care immediately if a pet is suspected of ingesting antifreeze.

After this first stage, it may appear that the animal has recovered, when in actuality, the ethylene glycol is being metabolized into its poisonous form. If the pet is not treated at this point, it will likely suffer serious, and often fatal, kidney failure.

If you suspect antifreeze poisoning, take your pet to a veterinarian, who will perform a number of tests to help confirm exposure.

Hazards of fall yard work include iron-based fertilizers, herbicides that contain lead arsenate, and mulch made from cocoa hulls, which, like chocolate, can cause stomach upset when ingested and can be toxic to pets if ingested in large enough quantities. In order to keep pets safe, owners should always read and follow label instructions exactly and keep pets away from freshly fertilized lawns and gardens.

Compost and leaf piles can harbor molds and other fungi that produce toxic byproducts, and can appear to be perfect hiding places for pets and other four-legged critters. For this reason, it is important to keep compost piles fenced or covered, and to not let leaf piles sit too long.

If you suspect your pet has ingested a questionable substance, call a veterinarian or ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center immediately. If possible, have the package or label of the suspected poison in hand.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an affiliated agency of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, runs a 24-hour hotline at 888/426-4435. The hotline is staffed by licensed veterinarians with specialized training in toxicology and maintains a database with the latest research and information on new toxic products and appropriate treatments. There is a $55 fee per case, which includes follow-up calls made to the hotline by both you and your veterinarian.

For more information about household toxins and your pet, contact your veterinarian or visit www.aspca.org/apcc.