What to do if you think your dog or cat has been poisoned

Vet Pete Wedderburn explains what to do if you think your dog or cat has been poisoned Credit: Robert Daly

Dogs and cats, like children, are vulnerable to poisoning

Dogs and cats can be exposed to a wide range of substances that may be harmful to them, and they don’t have the ability to understand that there may be a risk. Poisons that affect dogs and cats include human and veterinary drugs, plants and fungi, some human foods, DIY/household/garden products and venomous bites/stings. Just as parents have a responsibility to protect their children from poisons, so owners have a duty to take steps to prevent their pets from being exposed to toxic substances. Different substances can be poisonous to different animals and breeds, and what is fine for a human may be toxic to your pet. Likewise, what is okay for your dog may not be safe for your cat.

Swallowing poison is not the only risk

Dogs and cats can also suffer from poisoning after substances have come into contact with their fur/skin, after a splash of a chemical in the eye, or of after inhalation of a poisonous vapour. Pet owners should be aware of these different possible routes for poison to affect their pets. Substances can also poison your dog or cat if they are taken via the wrong route e.g. swallowing substances which are meant to be applied to the skin can cause poisoning.

The most common poison to affect dogs is a human drug

Ibuprofen, the painkiller that’s commonly used in humans, is the most common substance to poison dogs. Data gathered by the Veterinary Poisons Information Service  also shows that the following substances are the next most common, in order of numbers of reported cases:

  • Rat poison

  • Paracetamol

  • Grapes ( and sultanas, raisins and currants)

  • Chocolate (chocolate poisoning is particularly common at Easter. Keep your treats out of reach)

Keep your chocolate Easter eggs out of reach  Credit: Meibion / Alamy Stock Photo

The most common poison to affect cats is a plant

Lilies are the most common poison affecting cats, with exposure to lily pollen (or any part of the lily plant) leading to kidney failure. The next most common cat poisons are:

  • Permethrin (found in flea treatments for dogs)

  • Benzalkonium chloride (in disinfectants and patio cleaners)

  • Paracetamol

Lilies are the most common poison affecting cats Credit: Fir Mamat / Alamy Stock Photo

Symptoms of poisoning in dogs and cats can be difficult to spot

A dog or cat may show no adverse effects from poisoning for hours - or even days - and the symptoms of poisoning vary widely, ranging from convulsions to organ failure to gastro-intestinal disturbances, with many other possibilities. Instead of waiting for symptoms to develop, if you suspect your pet has been poisoned, you should take immediate action.

If you think your dog or cat may have been poisoned, you need to make an urgent phone call

If you suspect - or know - that your pet has been exposed to a possible poison, a phone call for accurate information is the one critical thing you need to do. You may wish to phone your own vet, but vets are busy people, and you may not be able to a conversation with your vet immediately. An alternative is to call Animal Poison Line, on 01202 509000, an owners’ helpline run by the Veterinary Poisons Information Service. This is staffed by vets and scientists, and is open 24 hours a day to help with any animal who may be at risk. A phone call to this service can be lifesaving, and it may also save you a trip to the vet if it’s not necessary.

Before phoning, gather as much information about the poison as possible

Before you call your vet or Animal PoisonLine, write down as much information as possible about the poison, including the brand name, ingredients, tablet strength, number of tablets and any other information. Also be ready to clearly explain the circumstances of the poisoning episode to the person on the other end of the line.

Be ready to take your dog or cat to the vet immediately after the phone call

If the phone call conversation confirms that treatment by your vet is necessary, the sooner your dog or cat is seen, the better the outcome. While there are very few true antidotes to poisons, there are many specific poisoning treatments that can help.

Be ready to take your dog or cat to the vet immediately Credit: Alamy

It is dangerous to try to make a dog or cat vomit at home

In the past, people have tried to make their dog or cat vomit using home remedies: this carries the risk of harming your pet, and it should never be attempted. Your vet has medication that is proven to induce vomiting in a safe, effective manner if it is required.

Prevention of poisoning is better than cure

I have seen many dogs and cats die after poisoning episodes, and the emotional consequences can be devastating. Not only has the owner lost a beloved pet, but they feel guilty that they did not do more to prevent the incident. It is very easy to prevent poisoning, and it can be impossible to save the life of a seriously poisoned dog or cat.

When dogs and cats are around, you need to treat all hazardous substances in the same way as you’d look after them if a child was around. This means storing them in high-up, out-of-reach cupboards, or in locked cabinets. Remember that dogs and cats are curious creatures that are often attracted to poisonous substances.

Preventing poisoning - whether by keeping chocolate out of reach at Easter, keeping lilies out of a house where there are cats, using rat bait in a pet-friendly way, or storing human medication in a locked cabinet - is far easier than trying to save the life of a poisoned dog or cat.