Poisonings in Pets: National Poison Prevention Week

August 16th, 2013

Kenton D. Rexford, VMD

National Poison Prevention Week occurs every year on the third week of March. For over 50 years, poison control centers and pediatricians have used this week to educate families regarding safety for their children. Veterinarians also participate to promote awareness, prevention and treatment of poisonings in pets.

You may be surprised to learn that poisoning is a common occurrence in pets. Dogs can climb up on counters, chew into child-resistant containers and are frequently left alone in their homes so they may be even more at risk than many kids. Cats also like to play with things and can swallow pills or eat poisonous plants. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center answers an average of 725 calls each day (that’s over 25,000 per year). 



Guinea Pig

Ideally, we would prevent our pets from being exposed to toxins and poisons in the first place. Here are a few tips to help keep your pets safe from things that can poison them:

  • Always store medications and cleaning products in a cabinet that pets cannot access

  • Always follow label instructions for any product

  • Never leave medications, candy or gum in your purse or backpack or on a counter or table

  • Never give human medication to an animal unless specifically directed by a veterinarian

  • Never leave “people food” – especially chocolate, candy, grapes or raisins – anywhere that a pet can access

  • When taking medication, go behind a closed door. That way if you drop your pill, you will have a chance to recover it before your pet gets it.



Human Medications

The most common poisoning in pets is ingested medications intended for a human. Pets have different metabolic pathways than people. For that reason, some human medications can be a big problem for pets. Here are some examples:

Human medications can be very toxic for our pets.


Acetaminophen (Tylenol) – One 500 mg tablet could kill your cat. It causes damage to feline red blood cells which are important in carrying oxygen to all the cells in the body. The condition can be treated, but not all cats respond to treatment.

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) – Dangerous for cats or dogs. Dogs and cats can experience digestive tract ulcers at lower doses and kidney or liver failure at higher doses.

Antidepressants  - If these medications are prescribed for your pet by your veterinarian, then your veterinarian has determined an appropriate dosage for your pet. If, however, your pet ingests a dose intended for a human, they could experience agitation, seizures and changes in the heart rhythm (cardiac arrhythmias).

Blood pressure medication and heart medications – Can cause dangerously low blood pressure or cardiac arrhythmias. Again, if these medications are prescribed for your pet by your veterinarian, then your veterinarian has determined an appropriate dosage for your pet. 



Ingestion of plants is another common poisoning. Some plants can cause minor problems like digestive upset, but other plants could cause serious illness or death.

Lillies are toxic to cats.

Lilies cause renal failure in cats. This can be treated successfully if treated early and aggressively. Easter lilies are a common problem in addition to star-gazer lilies which are commonly found in floral arrangements.  Even licking the pollen from one plant or drinking the vase water from the cut flowers can cause life-threatening illnesses.

Sago palm causes liver failure in dogs. 

American Mistletoe, Holly and Poinsettia cause GI irritation (it is an urban myth that these holiday plants are deadly).

For a searchable list of poisonous and non-toxic plants, see ASPCA List of Non-Poisonous and Poisonous Plants for pets.



Grapes and Raisins are toxic to pets.

Grapes and Raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs.  The specific toxin involved has not been identified, but thousands of cases have been reported. If a dog ingests grapes or raisins, do not wait for symptoms to show up. The dog should be treated early for the poisoning. 

Rodenticides  Products intended to kill mice, rats, and groundhogs also will harm pets.  Depending on the type of product used, your pet could develop internal bleeding, kidney failure or seizures and death.  The signs don’t always develop immediately so get help as soon as you realize your pet has been exposed.

Insecticides  Many insecticides and flea control products can be used safely on and around pets.  Your veterinarian can recommend safe and effective products.  Problems arise when people do not follow label instructions.  It is critical that you follow label instructions.  For example, only use a product labeled for cats on your cat…never use a product labeled for dogs on your cat.  Most insecticide poisonings can be treated successfully. 

Chocolate is toxic to cats and dogs.

Chocolate  Is toxic to dogs and cats.  Dogs tend to eat a greater quantity of chocolate, so there are more reported cases in dogs.  There are chemicals in chocolate called methylxanthines that cause excitement, tremors/seizures and cardiac arrhythmias.  The amount of methylxanthines in chocolate varies –, the darker the chocolate the more methylxanthines.  Most pets will recover if treated early and appropriately.

Xylitol  Is an artificial sweetener commonly used in sugar-free gum, candies and baked goods.  Xylitol causes a lowering of the blood sugar which may lead to seizures and liver failure in dogs.  This can be treated successfully if caught early.

Ethylene Glycol (Antifreeze)  Also can cause kidney failure.  Again, do not wait for symptoms.  The pet should be treated early and aggressively.

There are many more things that can be poisonous to your pets.  For more information, visit the ASPCA Poison Control Center’s website



If your pet is known to have ingested or been exposed to a toxin, I always recommend calling the ASPCA Animal Poison Control at 888-426-4435.  Another option is to call or go to a veterinarian. There is no one treatment for every toxin, so it is important to consult an expert immediately.