Quick Tips from a Veterinarian on Keeping Pets Safe
Dr. Justine Lee, a veterinary emergency critical care specialist and the associate director of Veterinary Services at Pet Poison Helpline, warns pet owners about several overlooked toxins that can threaten the lives of our four-legged companions.
Salt Water Toxicity
If your dog loves to play on the ocean beach, heed caution. Dogs don’t realize that salt water is dangerous, and excessive intake can result in severe hypernatremia, or salt poisoning. While initial signs of hypernatremia include vomiting and diarrhea, salt poisoning can progress quickly to neurologic signs like incoordination, seizures, progressive depression, and ultimately, severe brain swelling. Hypernatremia needs to be treated very carefully with IV fluids by your veterinarian. Help avoid the problem by carrying a fresh bottle of tap water and offering it to your dog frequently while he’s frolicking on the beach.
If you own a pool or hobby pond, make sure to keep those pool chemicals away! Algaecides and chlorine shock water treatment products are generally safe once these chemicals are diluted appropriately. However, many of the undiluted pool chemicals (like chlorine bleach tablets, etc.) are corrosive (as they are bleach derivatives), and if ingested directly from the bucket or in tablet form, can result in severe ulcers in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, resulting in life-threatening punctures of the GI tract. When in doubt, make sure you always store your pool chemicals in a locked, secure area, and never leave open containers (even for a second!) pool-side.
Believe it or not, but sunscreen can be toxic to your pet if ingested in large amounts. Sunscreens contain a few potentially dangerous chemicals: PABA, zinc oxide, salicylic acid (aspirin), and laxatives. Massive PABA ingestion can result in severe gastroenteritis (an inflammation of the stomach and intestines), bone marrow changes, and even liver damage. Zinc oxide generally just causes a mild gastroenteritis, resulting in vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea. Large amounts of salicylic acid can result in gastric ulcers, and in high doses, even kidney failure. Sunscreen may also have an inadvertent laxative effect also, resulting in diarrhea.
Thankfully, this is pretty rare because pets have to ingest large bottles of sunscreen before it’s an issue. Remember that if you apply sunscreen to your pet, he’ll likely just lick it off. In general, I don’t normally recommend sunscreen unless you have a white dog with a pink nose, live in a high elevation in constant sunshine (like Colorado!), house your dog outdoors most of the time, or if your dog has an underlying medical problem (like pemphigus, lupus, dermatitis, etc.). If you need to use it, purchase a child-safe sunscreen and consult your veterinarian.
Flea and Tick Medications
During the spring and summer, flea and tick infestation is at its peak! Make sure your pets are protected with an adequate, safe, preventative flea and tick medication to avoid that itchy, uncomfortable feeling of bites, flea allergy dermatitis, or even tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Nowadays, there are multiple different options for insect preventives: from oral pills to topical spot-on treatments (both prescription and over-the-counter). Most of these types are either an adulticide (killing adult fleas and ticks) or an insect growth regulator (birth control for flea eggs, preventing them from developing into adults). When in doubt, contact your veterinarian about the best type of medication for your pet; the safest types of preventative are often by prescription only.
Keep in mind that some dogs have sensitivities to certain types, and others can cause severe adverse reactions if not applied appropriately. Most importantly, if you’re a cat owner, read the label carefully! Some of these preventives contain pyrethrins or pyrethroids (a chemical derivative of the natural Chrysanthemum flower), which are severely toxic to cats when misapplied. Even the accidental application of a dog flea product to a cat can result in severe symptoms like seizures, tremors, and life-threatening reactions!
Stings and Insect Bites
If you’re going camping in a mosquito-infested area, consider using a flea and tick preventive that gets mosquitoes too. Only Advantix (Bayer Animal Health) works for mosquitoes, because of the pyrethrin – which again, should never be used on cats! You can also consider using low-concentration DEET is severe situations (like OFF®or Skintastic®).
For you cat owners, be safe and don’t use anything – mosquitoes can’t usually get through that thick kitty fur coat, and it’s rare for cats to get Lyme disease (likely because cats are such fastidious groomers that ticks get groomed off, swallowed and pooped out shortly thereafter). Besides, cats are so sensitive to any kind of chemical or drug due to their altered liver (glutathione metabolism), so always check with a veterinarian before using any product on a cat! If you do notice an attached tick, simply get a pair of tweezers and firmly grasp near the base (head of the tick) and pull it off in one swipe.
More severe bites include snake bites and scorpion bites. Depending on where you live, your curious dog may get bitten on the nose when he harasses a rattlesnake. When in doubt, keep your dog supervised closely on a leash so you can avoid the bite to begin with. If your dog does get bitten by a snake, don’t attempt any first aid yourself – no tourniquets, no ice, no lancing of the wound and sucking out the venom – none of these are beneficial and can make your pet worse! Seek veterinary attention immediately or call Pet Poison Helpline for advice on how to best treat these bad bites.
The best thing any pet owner can do is to be educated on the summertime toxins that are out there - that way you can make sure to pet proof your house appropriately. Make sure to have fresh water available for your pet at all times; to keep all chemicals and household products in labeled, tightly-sealed containers out of your pet’s reach; to read flea and tick preventative labels appropriately, and to consult your vet whenever starting new medications. When in doubt, please call Pet Poison Helpline* at 1-800-213-6680 with any questions or concerns if you’re worried that your pet could have inadvertently gotten into anything this summer!
*A fee is billed by Pet Poison Helpline. PPH is not affiliated with VPI Pet Insurance.