Sometimes pets eat or drink things that are poisonous or toxic to their bodies, or could otherwise cause serious harm (e.g. intestinal blockage). It isn’t always obvious what to do when your dog or cat has been exposed to a potentially dangerous substance. This article will discuss what to do if your pet eats or drinks something he shouldn’t have, including what to expect at the veterinarian’s office.
Toxic Substances That Require a Vet Visit for Decontamination
Decontamination includes making the pet vomit (i.e. inducing vomiting) and/or giving medication to adsorb the toxin. Examples of substances that require decontamination include:
Heavy metals like zinc or lead
Artificial sweeteners: e.g. xylitol in dogs
Objects that may cause an intestinal blockage: e.g. corn cobs, hair ties, stuffed animals, clothing, or string
Medication: e.g. pain medications like ibuprofen
Poison: e.g. rat bait or antifreeze
Dangerous foods: e.g. garlic and chocolate
Decontamination Measures at the Veterinarian’s Office
With many toxic or dangerous substances, your veterinarian’s first objective will be to make your pet throw up as much of it as possible, assuming it is safe to do so. For dogs, medications that help induce vomiting include apomorphine or ropinorole. These medications usually work really well but can sometimes cause drowsiness. For cats, safe and effective medications to induce vomiting are less readily available. The best options are dexmedetomidine or xylazine, which tend to cause drowsiness as well. After getting the pet to vomit, veterinarians will sometimes also administer medication to adsorb some of the remaining toxin. The most common adsorptive agent is activated charcoal (which is not the same thing as charcoal used for grilling). Adsorption with activated charcoal essentially causes the toxin to attach to the charcoal so that the toxin can’t be absorbed by the body. It then passes through the intestines and is defected during a bowel movement, with minimal harm to the pet. Other decontamination measures include physical removal of a substance/object, typically via endoscope or surgery. After removing and/or adsorbing as much toxin as possible, the vet will treat the pet based on how the toxin will affect the body, such as with intravenous fluids and organ-protective medications.
When Vomiting Should Be Avoided
In some cases, having a pet vomit up certain substances is unnecessary or could cause more harm than good. Listed below are some situations when vomiting should not be induced:
If more than 4 hours has passed since the pet ate/drank something he shouldn’t have, vomiting may not help. Too much of the toxin could already have been absorbed into the body, or it may have already passed out of the stomach and into the intestines.
Sharp objects can potentially poke the esophagus on the way back out, causing more harm than trying to remove it from the stomach by other means (e.g. endoscope or surgery).
Caustic substances (e.g. acidic or alkaline toxins such as those in toilet bowl cleaners or dishwashing detergents) that can corrode the esophagus on the way back out are not typically something for which veterinarians will induce vomiting.
Hydrocarbons, such as gasoline or kerosene, can be very dangerous if they get into the lungs. Inducing vomiting carries the risk of these types of substances becoming inhaled during the process of throwing up, so inducing vomiting is not recommended.
Inducing vomiting is almost never performed in animals with an altered mental state. Wobbly, sleepy, or comatose animals may choke when made to vomit, increasing the risk of inhaling the toxin and either blocking airflow or causing issues within the lungs.
Can You Induce Vomiting at Home?
In general, few options are available to make a pet vomit at home. Hydrogen peroxide is sometimes recommended for dogs when immediate treatment is needed. Hydrogen peroxide works to induce vomiting by irritating the stomach lining. Unfortunately, this irritation can cause problems of its own, leading to severe inflammation of the stomach and esophagus. It is almost never recommended in cats because it can cause such severe inflammation that it will kill healthy stomach and esophageal tissue (known as necrosis). Other previously recommended options include salt and ipecac, neither of which are now considered safe for pets to receive. Depending on what your pet ate, you may be able to start some kind of treatment at home while waiting on a visit to the vet. For example, acidic substances can be somewhat neutralized by feeding milk. Feeding a small amount of dry bread can sometimes be helpful to help entangle a potential foreign body (e.g. string) or soak up a liquid toxin. It may also help produce more vomit when the veterinarian makes your pet throw up. If your pet eats something he shouldn’t have, call your vet and see what his or her recommendations are prior to giving anything at home. Animal Poison Control is another great resource to help you figure out the next best steps. Always remember that the sooner you seek help for your pet, the better his outcome is likely to be.