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March 11, 2021 – March is Poison Prevention Month and a good time to review the latest information on new poisoning trends, what owners need to watch out for, and where and when to get help.

The Who, What and When of Toxin Exposure

A recent article by the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) presented data collected from their call center, which is one of the largest poison control hotlines in the world. A review of their data collected over six years found some interesting trends on which animals are most at risk, what they are getting into and even when they are getting into trouble.

Top Offenders

  • Dogs are by far the species most exposed to potential or known toxins, accounting for a whopping 63% of calls to the center.
  • Cats were in distant second place, accounting for only 7% of calls.
  • Surprisingly, fish were the third most common species reported to have exposure to toxins, with cattle coming in fourth.

Another finding that won’t be too surprising to Labrador retriever owners is that they top the list of “most likely to eat something naughty” for the third year in a row. Even when adjusted for the breed’s popularity (since there are more of them out there to get into trouble), Labrador retrievers are over-represented in calls to the hotline. Mixed-breed dogs came in second place with golden retrievers rounding out the top three.

Top Exposures

According to the APCC’s hotline call data, the top four categories of exposures (in descending order) were:

  • Human prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Human food
  • Veterinary products

Other well-represented categories include plant ingestion, exposure to herbicides and insecticides, as well as household products such as cleaning supplies.

New Exposure Trends

Exposure to specific toxins has changed over the years, reflecting both greater awareness among owners of potentially harmful materials as well as changes in the availability of certain products. The APCC is seeing certain rising trends that should put owners on alert.

Most owners are aware that rodenticides are toxic to their pets, but the APCC reports a disturbing increase in pets eating cholecalciferol-based products (examples include Muritan and Mouse-B-Gone Mouse Killer). Cholecalciferol is vitamin D3 which is toxic in high doses. In addition to rodenticides, the APCC also reported an increase in vitamin D3 toxicity caused by pets eating human dietary supplements.

As the use of laundry pods becomes more popular, it’s no surprise that the incidence of ingestion (almost exclusively by dogs) is on the rise as well. Dogs can be quick to snap up a dropped pod thinking it is a treat!

The increased popularity of dark chocolate has resulted in an uptick in reports of chocolate toxicity. Chocolate ingestion has always been a common problem in dogs (they like the taste, too!) but this new trend is particularly worrisome because dark chocolate has a higher concentration of methylxanthines, the stimulants which, at high doses, cause clinical signs. Even small amounts of dark chocolate can be dangerous to dogs, especially smaller ones.

Another major trend is an increase in reports of pets ingesting marijuana or marijuana products. Clinical signs are much more intense after ingestion of edibles than leaves or plants. Many edibles use cannabutter or oils extracted from plants, and these contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Many edibles also contain chocolate, which can compound toxicity.

When Owners Are Most Likely to Call?

For the study period, aside from slight differences, the APCC didn’t note much seasonality to calls fielded by their staff. In the past, holiday times often resulted in increased exposure, but recent results suggest a more even distribution of events throughout the year. The authors also noted that most calls were fielded in the late morning to early afternoon – a bit of a surprise since they expected the volume to be higher when pet owners are home with their animals, and this result represented a change from their previous data which showed most calls arriving in the early evening. This may reflect new work habits during the pandemic.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Pet

It’s important for owners to carefully store all medications and cleaning products where they can’t be accessed by pets. It is equally important to be aware of unintended exposures such as using common house cleaning products near fish tanks, birds or small rodents. Owners also need to monitor the outdoor environment and take care to avoid exposures of their pets to insecticides and herbicides, as well as other outdoor products such as antifreeze and ice melts.

Many owners know the most common toxins that can harm pets, but it’s also important to keep up-to-date with the latest information on new substances that can cause big problems for our dogs and cats.

What to Do if Your Pet Ingests Something They Shouldn’t

If you suspect or know of a toxin exposure, you need to contact your family veterinarian immediately. If it is after hours or a weekend, a veterinary emergency clinician can help (and often is skilled at treating toxin exposures). The quicker a pet gets veterinary care, the better the outcome in any case of toxin exposure. Even if you’re unsure whether a plant, food stuff, or other substance is poisonous, it’s always best to contact a veterinarian.

The APCC is staffed 24 hours a day year-round and is a wonderful resource as well, but they sometimes charge a consultation fee. Consultants can be reached at (888) 426-4435. In addition, they have a great website that contains lots of relevant information for pet owners, including a poisonous plant guide, lists of toxic foods, and podcasts that cover a number of topics – they even have an app you can download to your phone!

Although it’s scary when a pet eats something they shouldn’t, many toxicities are treatable if recognized promptly. Morris Animal Foundation has funded several studies on toxin exposures in animals and continues to advance veterinary knowledge in this area to help animals everywhere have longer, healthier lives.