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Fall Toxins Newsletter
Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT & Renee Schmid, DVM


The end of summer marks the time of year when we replace beach balls and sunscreen with jackets and hot chocolate.  As we make the transition to fall and winter, it is important to remember all of the seasonal toxins that are less commonly seen in the warm summer months.  With Halloween and Thanksgiving right around the corner, make sure to educate yourself on the pet poisons that are around your house and that we commonly see here at Pet Poison Helpline (PPH) during this time of the year.

Chocolate: While the occasional M&M or chocolate chip may not be an issue for our furry friends, the concern for chocolate poisoning is due to two things: 1) the type of chocolate— the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more toxic it is to your pet—and 2) the amount ingested. Baker’s chocolate and dark chocolate pose the biggest risk as they are more concentrated than milk chocolate. Poisoning is due to a chemical similar to caffeine called theobromine. Ingestion of too much theobromine (or caffeine) results in vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, an abnormal heart rhythm, seizures, and rarely, death. With Halloween right around the corner, make sure your kids know to hide the candy stash from your dogs. Dogs make up 95% of chocolate cases at Pet Poison Helpline. In some dogs, even the wrappers from candy can pose a problem by causing a bowel obstruction in the stomach or intestines.

Dog and Cat with Food 3

Table food: While you may think you are “loving” your dog by giving him table scraps from Thanksgiving dinner, it could be very unsafe for your pet. While there’s not a “toxicity” issue from fatty table foods (such as bacon, gravy, turkey skin, grizzle, etc.), it can result in signs from gastroenteritis (mild vomiting or diarrhea) to a severe, potentially life-threatening, pancreatitis. Other table food, like corn-on-the-cob, can result in an intestinal obstruction, resulting in projectile vomiting, diarrhea, and may require costly surgery for removal. Desserts made with xylitol, a natural sugar-free sweetener, or foods containing grapes or raisins can also result in poisoning in dogs. Xylitol causes an acute drop in blood sugar and even liver failure at high doses, while grapes and raisins can result in fatal acute kidney failure. When in doubt, don’t let your pet get any table food! 

Mouse and rat poisons (rodenticides): As you prepare to winterize your garage, cabin, or house, keep in mind that mouse, rat and other rodent poisons can be fatal to pets. Always make sure to place these poisonous baits in areas where your pet can’t reach them (i.e., high up on shelves, hidden behind work spaces, etc.). Currently, there are four common categories of rodenticides available for general use. Each has a different and unique mechanism of action. This results in four different sets of clinical signs in both the target rodent population and our curious pets who might consume them.

  • Long-acting anticoagulants (LAACs):  By far, the most well-known and perhaps most widely used rodenticides are the LAACs. This family of rodenticides works by causing internal bleeding and preventing the body from clotting normally. Common signs include coughing (due to blood in the lungs), exercise intolerance, weakness, large and soft lumps under the skin, vomiting, nose bleeds, bruised skin, bloody urine, bleeding from the gums, and inappetence. With LAACs, it takes 2-3 days before the poison actually takes effect and signs of bleeding occur. If there is any suspicion of ingestion, a clotting test called a prothrombin time, or PT test, supports the diagnosis (it takes 36-48 hours after ingestion before a PT test will be abnormal). Fortunately, there is an antidote for this group of poisons—prescription-strength Vitamin K1. This medication is an inexpensive pill given 1-2 times per day for approximately one month, and is routinely found in most veterinary offices. Because this group of poisons is “long acting,” the product can remain in your pet’s liver for months to years. Therefore, if your pet were to ingest this mouse poison a second time, it’s critical to inform your vet that your animal was previously exposed, as the additional dose of mouse poison is compounded onto the previous one. 
    • Bromethalin: This type of rat poison is gaining popularity and is often sold in conjunction with bait stations. It works by causing swelling of the brain and spinal cord. If toxic amounts are ingested, signs of incoordination, paralysis, tremoring, or convulsing are possible. The dose required to cause poisoning is very small, especially for cats. Unfortunately, there is no antidote to this poison and treatment may require an extended amount of time in the veterinary hospital due to long-lasting neurological effects (days up to a week). PPH does not recommend the use of this product in a home with cats.

    • Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3): One of the most dangerous rat poisons is a Vitamin D3-based rodenticide. This type increases calcium and phosphorus blood levels to a level high enough that it causes secondary kidney failure. With this type of rat poison, only a tiny amount needs to be ingested before it causes a problem, and long-term, expensive treatment is usually necessary. Due to the extreme difficulty in treating this type of poisoning, PPH recommends dog and cat owners avoid using this toxin on their property.

    • Zinc phosphide: This type of poison is more commonly used in mole and gopher baits. Zinc phosphide ingestion results in the formation of toxic phosphine gas in the stomach.  Severe bloating, profuse vomiting, abdominal pain, and potential lung, heart, and liver complications occur due to this. Like other rodenticide poisons, it only takes a small amount of poison to cause a big problem! Make sure to keep these toxins away from your pets, as this type can be poisonous to you as well, if you happen to inhale the phosphine gas after your dog vomits. 


    Mushrooms: Most types of mushrooms located throughout the United States are non-toxic.  However, there are types of mushrooms that may be irritating to the stomach and intestines, as well as others that are hallucinogenic or result in fatality (e.g., liver failure, kidney failure, etc.). While the likelihood of mushroom poisoning is low, it’s very difficult for veterinarians and pet owners to be able to identify the exact species of mushroom that is in your yard.  Unfortunately, mycologists (mushroom experts) are generally not readily available to help identify the specific mushroom. Because certain mushrooms can be very toxic, it’s important to immediately bring your dog to a vet for decontamination (inducing vomiting and giving activated charcoal to bind up any poison). Sometimes stomach pumping (i.e., gastric lavage) is necessary in severe cases. In general, clinical signs seen from mushroom ingestion include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, incoordination, lethargy, tremors, and seizures, with liver and kidney damage occurring later. It’s helpful to collect all the pieces of the mushroom for later identification. Wrap them in a paper towel, place them in a paper bag (not plastic) and be sure to label them “POISONOUS – DO NOT EAT!”  

    Compost bins or piles: While we applaud you for composting, make sure to do so appropriately – your compost shouldn’t contain any dairy or meat products, and should always be fenced off for the sake of your pets and wildlife. These piles of decomposing and decaying organic matter have the potential to contain molds which can form tremorgenic mycotoxins—fungal byproducts which cause severe tremors and seizures in animals and people. Even small amounts ingested can result in symptoms within 30 minutes to several hours. Symptoms include agitation, hyperthermia, hyper-responsiveness, panting, drooling, and vomiting, and can progress to serious neurological signs, including incoordination, tremors, and seizures.  Other causes for these signs include toxins such as metaldehyde (i.e., snail bait), strychnine, organophosphates (the insecticide in some types of plant care products), and methylxanthines (i.e., chocolate). Prompt decontamination and treatment is necessary for survival. 

    The best thing any pet owner can do is to be educated on common household toxins, both inside the house and out in the garden, and to make sure you pet proof your house appropriately. Make sure to keep all chemicals in labeled, tightly-sealed containers our of your pet's reach. When in doubt, if you think your pet has ingested something poisonous, contact your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline and 800-213-6680 immediately. The sooner you speak to an expert, the more quickly treatment can be initiated, which results in a better prognosis for your pet and less veterinary costs for you!

    Resources:  Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline’s fee of $39.00 per incident includes follow-up consultations for the duration of the treatment time. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at  
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