Not so safe haven: The dangers of common household poisons

The sweet taste of rat poison and antifreeze can lure dogs into ingesting them. Photo: file photo The sweet taste of rat poison and antifreeze can lure dogs into ingesting them. Photo: file photo

From toilet cleaner to paint thinner, most homes are stocked with at least a few poisons that need to be kept safely away from pets and children. And while it’s certainly worth minding where you store the Windex—ammonia is nasty—I’ve never seen a pet consume any. So rather than panic about every single bottle with a warning label on it, I think it’s worth focusing instead on the household poisons that veterinarians find themselves treating on a regular basis. For some reason or another, these just keep popping up.

Let’s just get the big one out of the way: rat poison. It seems a terribly obvious inclusion—it’s literally called poison—but every year I see at least a few cases. If it were up to me, nobody would have this stuff around. It interferes with the normal clotting mechanism of blood, causing animals to slowly bleed to death after ingestion. Even judged by its intended purpose, it’s cruel. And worse, it’s deliberately designed to taste good, making it an irresistible treat for any dog that finds some tucked into a corner somewhere.

“It’s meant for rats, so I didn’t think the dog would eat it,” I’ve heard, as if a creature that routinely snacks on deer poop would suddenly evolve a discerning palate. If there’s any good news with rat poison, it’s that exposure to the most commonly used varieties are usually easy to treat. A stiff dose of vitamin K for a few weeks will negate the effect. Still, there’s no need to take chances. Rat poison has no place in any home with pets.

More insidious, and usually more dangerous, is antifreeze. Sadly, this one is a necessary evil for anybody with a car. The most common varieties of antifreeze are made of ethylene glycol, a brutally toxic compound, which unfortunately tastes sweet, luring dogs beyond their initial curiosity. Cats can’t taste sweet things (set that aside for pub trivia night), but are even more sensitive to the toxicity and can still be poisoned if they lick it off their fur after walking through a puddle.

Veterinarians live in fear of these cases. If caught immediately upon ingestion, we can induce vomiting and at least get most of it onto the floor. Aggressive hospitalized support can sometimes prevent whatever was absorbed from doing too much damage. But many antifreeze poisonings are spotted too late and the results are frequently tragic, with animals suffering irreversible kidney failure a day or so after ingestion.

Because the prognosis is so poor, it’s vital to prevent exposure. Antifreeze is usually given a bright green color so that leaks can be identified more quickly. And less toxic alternatives are available, often made of propylene glycol—a compound that sounds similar to its cousin but is exponentially safer.

Perhaps the most surprising inclusion on this list is medication. Toxicity is not an absolute property. It is dependent on dose and purpose, and most medicines have the potential to do harm when taken in excess. It’s rare that a week goes by without seeing a dog that got into a bottle of something, whether it be painkillers, antidepressants or blood pressure medication. One of the supreme ironies of owning pets is that you need Jedi training to get one pill down their throat, but they’ll happily devour 100 tablets of whatever you’re taking if given the chance.

It’s impossible to summarize this one, because the potential dangers of any given overdose vary with the medication in question. Naturally, it’s wise to call your veterinarian the moment you suspect something has happened. They might advise you to contact poison control to get a toxicologist involved before you even get to the hospital. Some cases wind up being no big deal, but it’s best to have the wheels turning before you find out it’s too late.

It is not unusual to have these kinds of things around your home, and there is no way to prevent every accidental ingestion. Things happen. But as any veterinarian knows, some things seem to happen a lot more often than others.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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