Pet Poisoning and how to avoid it

Weimeraner standing next to handler

Sunday morning, I received a frantic call.  Natascha has been one of my clients for many years, and we have become close friends.  She was crying and I couldn’t make out what she was saying.  Eventually, all I could hear was that there was something terribly wrong with one of her dogs, Manson, a beautiful Weimaraner.  Our local vet was away for the weekend and the other vet in town could only help her in an hour, so I told her to bring him to me, not having a clue what to expect or what could possibly be wrong.  I am not a vet, but I had to do something.

When they arrived with Manson, he was convulsing, and he couldn’t breathe.  He was kicking and twisting his body violently, trying to get air.  He had severe swelling in his neck.  At first, it looked like he was having an epileptic fit, but I realized it was not a fit.  Natascha’s dogs, all sleep inside.  She took them out early Sunday morning to relieve themselves.  Half an hour later, she found Manson hiding in a cupboard which was odd behaviour for him.  That is when she noticed, something is terribly wrong.  It took another half an hour getting him out from the cupboard, making phone calls, getting him in the car and arriving at my place.

We immediately suspected that he was stung by some sort of insect, a bee, or a wasp maybe because his throat was hugely swollen, and it was constricting his air intake.  We treated him as best we could with antihistamines and cortisone to take the swelling down.  In between that, he stopped breathing a couple of times, we revived him every time.  Throughout all this, he kept on convulsing, fighting to breathe.  Eventually, the vet was able to see us, and we rushed him to her.

It turned out that he was poisoned, and not stung by a bee.  He showed no signs of poison in the sense that he was not throwing up and neither did he have diarrhoea or foam at the mouth.

After 4 days of absolute hell, Manson died.  4 Days of being disorientated, in excruciating pain, not able to sleep without sedation, not able to eat.  The vets did everything they could possibly do for him, but the damage to his organs could not be reversed.

In the 4 days that Manson was fighting for his life, thousands of other pets also lost their lives due to poisoning.  While I am writing this, pets are being poisoned and killed in one of the most barbaric and cruellest ways possible.  It is absolute torture.  I know this might be difficult for you to read because it is upsetting.  Maybe you have lost pets from poisoning and for that, I am truly sorry.  Manson’s death absolutely shattered me.  He was not my dog but could have been.  I have known him for years.  Worked with him, played with him and his family are like family to me.  Their lives have been turned upside down from this.  The children are crying for him, and they witnessed the trauma.

Two years ago, in one of my practical animal behaviour assignments, I worked with a German Shepherd named Lula.  Lula was also poisoned but she survived it.  It changed her behaviour in many ways, and I wanted to delve into this, linking her behaviour problems with the poisoning.  At the end of my research, I could not find enough scientific evidence to prove my theory, so I had to water it down a bit.  The problem with this theory is that you need to prove it with brain scans, and we simply could not afford the scans.

Manson’s death has spurred me on, to continue my research in pet poisoning and the effects it has on survivors. This is a long-term project but I would like for people to be educated about poison so they can save their pets when possible. Please remember; that I am not a vet.  I do have a Veterinary Assistant qualification, but please, I beg you, when in doubt on pet health and care issues, turn to your vet. They are the ones who can provide trustworthy advice for poisons that may have been ingested.

Why are pets being poisoned?

  • Sometimes, pets are just in the wrong place. They get poisoned by accident.  There are areas in our town that serve as a habitat for Vervet monkeys.  The monkeys have always lived here.  Because of new developments, their habitats are getting smaller by the day.  They have nowhere to go to, to find food and water, so they go to houses that are close to them, to look for food.  People don’t understand this, and they put out food, laced with poison.  Many pets have died from ingesting this poisoned food that was meant for the monkeys.  And hundreds of monkeys have died from the poison.  It happens all over, not just in our town.
  • Dogs get poisoned because they are protecting your property. Criminals often poison the dogs to get easy access to your property.
  • People put out rat poison to control mice and rats. Unfortunately, the dead rat might be picked up by an owl for instance.  Pigeons might peck at the poison because poison is often disguised in grain kernels.  A pet might catch a pigeon that has ingested the poison.  A pet might find a mouse or a rat that has been poisoned.
  • Farmers put out poisoned carcasses to get rid of jackals. Your pets might come across these carcasses and get poisoned too.  Many birds of prey die after feeding off the carcasses.
  • People put out poisoned food for feral cats, but somebody’s pet cat might also come across the food.
  • Mice and rats, often take the poison to their nests and sometimes drop the poison. Your pet might find it and ingest it.  And even worse, a crawling child might find it too!  It is just not worth the risk.

How does poison kill?

Poisons are basically any drug or venom that harms the system. Animals and insects will evolve to protect themselves from these poisons, so invertebrates such as roaches have become immune to a lot of household toxins.

Many animals die from poison by using a cruel method that doesn’t result in a quick death. This is usually the case with rodents, such as mice and rats. Rodents eat various things including some poisons that they find attractive via taste or smell, and once they ingest these poisons, the poison first builds up in their gut (which also slows growth) and later works its way back to their heart before finally working its way back out to all of their other body tissues, leading to cardiac arrest–meaning the rodent eventually dies as it’s organs stop functioning one by one due to lack of blood flow.

To understand how rat poison works, it helps to understand how a rodent’s cells work. Like most human cells, rodent cells need proteins from food to function properly. Proteins are made up of amino acids which are made up of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O). The Rat Poison Protein contains two extra molecules that the animal cell can’t use – phenol and sulphur. These molecules stop other proteins from being able to enter the cell so the protein chain is broken down before it can grow long enough for mice or rats to make any use of it. Eventually, all cellular processes break down and the animal dies of malnutrition within about three days.

Rat poison is cruel because it doesn’t kill rats quickly. It can take a rat days to die after ingesting the poison, and some may drag themselves to their nest in agony before they finally succumb to starvation or dehydration. They will likely also go mad through obsessively nibbling at anything that gets in their way as they teeter on the brink of death – giving birth to an ugly new rodent who will suffer the same excruciating end as its mother. This is not only cruel but horrific for pet owners who might see rat droppings or experience a rash from encountering dead larvae shed from dying rats. So please know what you’re putting out for your four-legged friends!

Most common poisons used to kill pets and rodents:

2 Step – Aldicarb

Aldicarb is a carbamate that functions as both an insecticide and a cholinesterase inhibitor. It can be ingested through food contaminated with the product or indirectly by exposure to it in its pure form.

The first step of aldicarb poisoning is ingestion, which will lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and difficulty breathing before death (respiratory failure) occurs. For individuals who have not eaten the poisoned food yet, but eye contact has occurred there are few symptoms that are seen before blindness occurs. The second stage of poisoning involves inhalation, which will most often result in death from respiratory failure if left uncontrolled because of problems relating to the transmitter system for nerve impulses – cholinergic inhibitor – blocking messages.

Rat Poison – rodenticides

Rat poison is a slow, cruel, and drawn-out death.  There are different types of rat poisons.  Rat poisons are designed to attract mice or rats to the bait.  The poison is usually covered in a sweet-tasting ingredient, to encourage rodents to eat it and take it to their nests.

Rat poisons contain different ingredients which kill in different ways.

The most common one contains anticoagulants. Anticoagulants prevent rats’ blood from clotting, eventually killing them from within. Depending on the concentration of the poison, the rat can experience symptoms for days or die within one day of consumption.  AutomaticTrap.com, How does rat poison work, 7 January 2021’

 Symptoms of internal bleeding: (It can take up to 2 – 3 days to see any symptoms)

  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Vomiting or coughing blood
  • Nose bleeds
  • Bleeding from the gums
  • Bleeding when doing the toilet
  • Blood in stools
  • Bruising
  • Breathing difficulties (caused by bleeding into the lungs) vets-now.com, how to tell if a dog ate rat poison, 2021

 Anti-freeze

Anti-freeze poisoning occurs mostly by accident.  It has caused the death of thousands of pets and poses a danger to toddlers. Anti-freeze, which often contains ethylene glycol (EG), can be extremely dangerous to dogs and cats. Sources of ethylene glycol include automotive antifreeze (radiator coolant, which typically contains 95% ethylene glycol), windshield de-icing agents, motor oils, hydraulic brake fluid, developing solutions for photography, paints, solvents, etc. As little as a tablespoon can result in severe acute kidney failure in dogs, while as little as 1 teaspoon can be fatal to cats. When dogs or cats are exposed to a toxic dose of ethylene glycol, immediate treatment is necessary. Some “pet-safe” antifreeze products contain propylene glycol, which is much safer than ethylene glycol if ingested.

Three stages of poisoning can be seen with ethylene glycol:

Stage 1: This occurs within 30 minutes to 12 hours and looks like alcohol poisoning. Signs of incoordination, drooling, vomiting, seizures, and excessive thirst and urination may be seen.

Stage 2: This occurs within 12-24 hours post-exposure, and clinical signs are seen to “resolve” when in fact more severe internal injury is still occurring.

Stage 3: In cats, this stage occurs 12-24 hours after ethylene glycol exposure. In dogs, this stage occurs 36-72 hours post-ingestion. During this stage, severe acute kidney failure is occurring. Signs of inappetence, lethargy, drooling, vomiting, seizures, and coma may be seen.  Petpoisonhelpline.com, Antifreeze, Garage Items, 2021

Be vigilant

We know that our pets can be poisoned at any given time.   We have no control over it.  But there are things we can do, to lessen the chances of our pets becoming victims of poisoning.  In my opinion, there are three main reasons why pets get poisoned:

  1. Criminals want access to your property, so they get rid of your pets
  2. Your pets are a nuisance to neighbours. Barking continuously, or your cat fighting with the neighbour’s cat or eating its food for instance.  People do get so frustrated, it’s like road rage, they reach a point where they snap.
  3. You have aggressive dogs, and your neighbours might be blaming your dog for attacks in the area.

We are just focussing on purposely poisoning pets now, not accidental poisoning.  There might be other reasons why anybody wants to poison your pets, I am just listing the reasons I think are the most important ones.

What can we do?  How do we avoid this at all costs?  If you have ever seen a pet die from poisoning, you would want this never to happen to your pets.  It is truly horrific!  I have put together a list of things, that I feel can really be helpful in avoiding getting poisoned in the first place.

  • Poison proof your pets. This is a method used to teach pets not to eat anything they find anywhere, except from your hand or from their food bowls.  This takes a lot of time and patience, but I have seen first-hand that it can be successful, and it is possible. This must be taught to your pets from the first day you get them, and it must always be refreshed and practiced.  This requires a bit of specialised training, but most qualified dog training instructors will be able to help you with this.

On this note, there are very cruel methods that some trainers use, to do poison proofing.  Be careful of that.  Sometimes they use boiling hot chicken and leave it for the dog to find, some use electric shock methods and so on.  You don’t have to make use of cruel ways and I certainly do not recommend it.  You might scar your dog mentally for life.

  • Keep your dogs away from your perimeter fencing, in other words, your main fencing or walling that leads to the pavement or roads. If it is at all possible, put up inside fencing, so that your dogs can’t get to the outer fence without you letting them out.  Should poison then be thrown over your fencing, your dogs won’t be able to get to it.  Always check your perimeter before letting your dogs out.  This is the best possible scenario to avoid poisoning.
  • Let your dogs sleep inside. Before you let them out in the morning, check your perimeter for any signs of activity during the night and anything that might have been thrown over the fence.  This is how most inside dogs get poisoned when they go out in the morning.
  • Keep your yard as clean as possible, especially if you have poisonings in your area. Rake up leaves, pick up any litter dropped by your kids or blown into your yard when it’s windy.   When your yard/garden is clean of any unnecessary debris, you will be able to spot anything out of the ordinary straight away. You will also be able to notice any activity that’s happened during the night.
  • Pick up dog poo daily and make sure it looks normal. If there is a sudden change in the colour, consistency, or smell, it might be an early warning signal that something is not right.  It might be an indication that your dogs are sick or have been poisoned.  Yes, it can happen that fast.  No dog poo should also be a sign that something is wrong.  If there are foreign objects in the poo that you don’t recognise, it could be a warning sign.  You might often find that your dogs have chewed and swallowed pieces of their toys, or your kid’s toys, and you normally recognise it.  If you suddenly find evidence of something that you do not recognise, this could be a warning sign.

Criminals sometimes do test runs.  They get the dogs used to eating stuff they throw over the wall.  You might just be able to recognise this test run, and it could save your dog’s life.

  • Set up outside cameras that clearly show the inside as well as the outside of your perimeter and link this to your phone. You could even get your neighbours involved so that you all help each other with linking cameras and getting cameras covering all angles.  Your neighbours should be your best allies in this because their dogs are in danger of getting poisoned as well.  Work together. Have a social media group between the neighbours so that activities by possible criminals could be reported and keep everyone aware.
  • Most people report that a few days before the poisoning, the dogs kept on barking at certain spots at the perimeter fencing/walling. Don’t ignore this.  Investigate it and alert your neighbours.  Right down times and dates, the dogs are barking so that you can look for a possible pattern.  Dogs bark when they see, hear or smell something.  We will get to nuisance barking in the next paragraph.  When dogs suddenly start barking at night, (which is normally when the poison is thrown over the fence) you should not ignore it.  Contact your security company and ask them to check it out.  Don’t go outside, especially on your own, but get your dogs away from the fence as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t let your dogs become a nuisance to neighbours. If a neighbour complains about your dog’s barking or howling, be nice and do something about it.  It’s not always criminals who poison pets, but neighbours too.  There are really many things you can do, to stop your dogs from spook barking during the day or at night.  When dogs bark for no reason, it means that they are not getting enough exercise, mental stimulation, or attention.  They could also be barking because they are hungry or thirsty.  Dogs bark for a reason, it is their way of communicating.  You should know your dogs well enough, to know why they are barking.  They are trying to tell you something and you need to act on it.
  • Don’t let your dogs get out of your property at all. Not even once.  Especially if you have intimidating dog breeds, such as Dobermans, German Shepherds, Pit Bulls, Bull Terriers, Boerboels, Great Danes and Rottweilers.  There are many more intimidating breeds, I am just mentioning a couple.  People are fearful of these breeds in general.  Some of them have been labelled as aggressive dogs over the years, and people might overreact completely when they come across your bewildered large breed dog, running down the street.

Your dog might bite someone or bite someone else’s pet.  It might run-up to every gate in your street and cause chaos and cause other dogs behind gates, to attack each other.  It happens every day and I must say, I will be very unforgiving if someone’s dog caused my own dogs to attack each other, while they are inside their own property.  Many dogs have died this way because there is such a build-up of frustration, that dogs often turn on each other, or anybody that try and stop the fight.  I can’t stress enough; how dangerous this is.

Dogs being out of their own property, causing chaos with other people’s dogs, are candidates for being poisoned by angry neighbours.  Dogs also chase cyclists and runners, pedestrians and children playing.  A child, running away from a dog, screaming, might trigger the dog’s prey drive.  A dog can cause a serious car accident, people can die.  Imagine the heartache a person must go through, losing a loved one, because your dog, ran in front of his car.  Let it sink it.  Think of the possible complications it might have for your dog.

  • Cats are poisoned even more than dogs. In fact, I have been in a couple of situations, where I overhear people openly saying they are going to poison a cat that comes into their home at night.  I have even read such statements on social media.  It is almost as though it is accepted by a society that cats may be poisoned. We don’t yet have a big problem in South Africa with feral dog packs as they do in other countries, but we certainly have a huge feral cat problem.

I want to let you in on a fact that only people who trap and release feral cats will know.  When you start killing off cats in a colony, it does not matter how you kill them, the cats start breeding more.  The stress they feel from seeing that the colony is getting smaller, kick starts their instinct to survive, so they breed, even more, making the problem much bigger than what it was. The original colony will quickly double in size, triple, and so on.

Feral cats are the direct result of irresponsible cat breeders.  They are the result of free kittens being dished out every couple of months. It is every society’s duty and responsibility, to trap, neuter and spay their feral cats because we, as societies, as communities, have caused it.

If you have cats, please do your utmost to keep them safe and inside.  Don’t let them roam.  Neuter and spay them as quickly as possible before they start mating. There are also a lot of good people out there, that will never hurt your cat, even if it comes into their homes.

  • Be vigilant, alert and know your surroundings very well. Make a point of checking your outside perimeters daily, so that you can spot anything out of the ordinary, immediately. Criminals often leave a lot of evidence or clues behind that might go by as nothing, to the untrained eye.  Rocks that are suddenly in different positions, litter, cigarette buds, beer bottles, it can be anything really.  Clean it up straight away.  Look for fresh marks on your walls, where someone might have leaned over a wall to look inside.  Footprints very close to the fence, plants that have been crushed, or trampled. Hand marks on painted walls.
  • If you have outside lights, maintain them, and keep spare bulbs in the house. If you have electric fencing, keep it in working order and test it regularly. Check your walls and fences for places your dogs might get out and fix it. Also, check for strategic holes made in fences or walls where poison can be put through the fence instead of being thrown over.
  • Plants and scrubs on the inside of your perimeter makes it more difficult to find possible poison thrown over the fence/walls. Ideally, you need about 2 – 3 meters of lawn or paving going towards the inside of your perimeter, so that you can quickly spot anything that is out of place.

What to do if you suspect poisoning

  • Phone your vet, immediately. Your vet is either going to be available or not. 
  • Take anything you find, with you. Such as poisoned meat not eaten yet, or if it’s a plant, take some leaves, if you don’t know what plant it is.  Anything that you think could be evidence, take it with you.  Make mental notes of what you see.  Did your dog vomit? What did it look and smell like?  Did he have diarrhoea?  What did it look and smell like?  If the dog got hold of any chemicals or insecticides, take the container with you.  You must act quickly and purposely.  If your vet is available, don’t try any home remedies, just get in your car, and go.  Keep surgical gloves in places where you can grab them quickly.  I always have a stash in my car because I often stop and help animals.
  • Don’t get any of the dog’s saliva or bodily excretions on your skin, wear gloves. Your skin can absorb the poison. Watch out for your mouth and eyes.  Keep your mouth closed or covered and be careful not to get any spit into your eyes.  Your mucus membranes can absorb the poison.
  • Try and keep track of time mentally. Your vet will want to know how long the dog was exposed to the poison, so while you are driving to the vet, try and remember what time you found the dog, how long was he outside etc.
  • If your vet is not available, then you need to try and keep the dog alive until you can get to a vet.

Here you need to be careful and not panic.  Think.  It is good to read up on different poisons, commonly used, what the symptoms are etc.  Because not all poisons can be treated the same way.  For instance, with certain poisons, it is not advised to induce vomiting.  So, the better you educate yourself with poisons, the better you will be able to deal with this.

  • The first step is always, to get the dog to empty the contents of his stomach. You need to induce this by using a liquid that will make the dog vomit.  This will be in your poison kit.  If the dog’s airway is constricted, you should not induce vomiting. You can use a bit of dishwashing liquid mixed with water, or a bit of salt mixed into water.  Be careful that you don’t get it into the dog’s lungs.
  • Never use alcohol to induce vomiting
  • Once the dog has vomited, you can start giving him activated charcoal which will absorb the poison. Mix the activated charcoal with a pet laxative if you have any and use a syringe to administer it orally.  Give him a chance to swallow before you do the next one, and make sure you are not choking him while doing this.
  • At this point, there is nothing more you can do, until you can get to a vet.
  • The raw egg. I am getting so many conflicting stories about this.  But I have seen a video where a poisoned dog was given 2 or 3 raw eggs and he recovered.  There are vets who claim that there is no scientific proof that this can work and others who claim that it does work.  So, my advice to you is this.  If you are in a position where you can not get to a vet at all, give the dog raw eggs.  You have nothing to lose at this point, and it’s better to try than not to try.  The egg can’t harm the dog.  It can either work or not work.
  • When you have a dog that is having convulsions, then do the following: keep him on soft comfortable bedding, blankets etc. because his body is aching, and every convulsion is painful.  Stay calm and talk to him soothingly, try to reassure him.  Don’t bother him.  He is in pain.  Just be there to make sure he does not injure himself.  Keep him away from furniture that he might knock himself against.  Don’t touch the dog and then touch your face as your skin will absorb the poison.
  • The dog might be overheating or getting very cold. You can help by cooling him or giving him extra warmth.
  • Keep noise to a minimum. He is disorientated, scared, and completely overwhelmed.  Don’t make it any worse for him.
  • Get a poison kit together. Make sure that if you buy one, it is a decent kit.  It must contain the following items:

Surgical gloves

Pet Laxative

Different size syringes

Dishwashing soap or something similar

Activated charcoal & applicator

Soft Bandage for in case you need to muzzle the dog

I also add antihistamine to mine, then I know I am covered for bee stings

 VERY IMPORTANT

A poison kit is not a poison cure.  It is only a time assisting kit – in other words, it is not going to cure your dog of the poison, but it might give you the extra time you need until you can get to a vet.

To conclude.  We have no control over poisonings, we can make the chances of our pets getting poisoned, less.  Educate yourself on poison as much as you can.  Knowledge is power and can save your pet’s life.  Don’t wait for it to happen to you, be prepared already.

Keep your pets safe!

Weimeraner standing next to handler
Manson

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