What Are the Signs Your Pet Has Suffered Toxic Exposure?
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
We live in a toxic world shared by our companion canines and felines.
Owners may not recognize it, but our pets are prone to exposure by a variety of toxins both within the safe confines of our homes and yards and out there in the vast and sometimes threatening world.
Although owners can be well-informed of substances having toxic properties for our pets, there is always the chance that we humans who safeguard the well being of our pets may not be aware that certain toxins exist in or have been brought within close proximity of our homes. As a result, our pets could suffer a toxic exposure without us even knowing. Such is why it is crucial to know the common clinical signs pets exhibit when suffering from toxicity.
National Poison Prevention Week
National Poison Prevention Week is March 20-26, 2016, but owners can play a proactive role in keeping pets safe on a year-round basis. My goal is to explain the various clinical signs of toxic exposure so that owners can be aware if a pet has been sickened by a toxin and can immediately pursue treatment.
Upon exposure to a toxin, your pet may exhibit mild to severe clinical signs depending on the toxic agent and the degree to which the exposure occurred (i.e. volume ingested, amount inhaled, etc.). Common clinical signs of toxicity include (but are not limited to):
Many toxins have a caustic (irritating) effect on tissues or an unpleasant taste that causes a pet to salivate due to oral tissue damage or as a means of clearing the taste from the mouth. Alternatively, toxin ingestion can cause nausea and vomiting that is often preempted by salivation.
Coughing and Sneezing
Not all toxins are ingested. Some are inhaled. Inhalation of irritating substances can cause the body to attempt to evacuate the irritant by coughing, sneezing, or reverse sneezing (rapid inhale/exhale through the nose typically with a closed mouth). Nasal discharge, which is often thin and clear but can progress to a thick mucus.
Like coughing and sneezing, discharge from the eyes occurs when an irritating material coats the surface of the eye. Eye discharge is commonly clear and the sclera (white of the eye) and the conjunctiva (tissue lining the inner edge of the eyelids) can become inflamed (dark pink to red). Additionally, the sensation of discomfort will cause a pet to paw at the eyes or rub the face on environmental surfaces as an attempted means of self-soothing. Unfortunately, doing so can actually exacerbate eye irritation.
Many toxins cause damage to internal organs or can be directly toxic to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and cause a pet to act lethargic. Pets exhibiting lethargic behavior appear less -energetic, aren’t as willing to play with toys or other animals, exhibit exercise intolerance, and spend more time resting.
Hyporexia or Anorexia
As toxins are often consumed orally and pass through the digestive tract (esophagus, stomach, and intestines), the appetite is often reduced. Hyporexia is the term for reduced appetite while anorexia means the appetite is absent.
Gagging, Retching or Vomiting
When a toxin is ingested, the oral cavity and digestive tract may be directly irritated. A pet can gag or retch to vomit and not bring up any stomach contents. Vomiting involves expelling of food, fluid, or the toxin itself from the stomach through active abdominal contractions. Internal organs like the kidneys, liver, and pancreas can be damaged by toxins and lead to nausea and vomiting.
Irritation to the small or large intestines by a toxin will lead to abnormal bowel movements or diarrhea. Small bowel diarrhea is non-urgent, soft, and often pale in color (tan, gray, etc.) or even black and shiny (as occurs with bleeding into the stomach or small intestine). Large bowel diarrhea (colitis) is urgent or explosive, soft to watery, has a variety of colors (brown, green, clear, etc.), and can contain blood or mucus.
The nervous system is susceptible to the damaging effects of a variety of toxins, which can cause tremors, twitching, and even seizures. Neurologic signs are always concerning and merit immediately evaluation by a veterinarian.
Altered Respiratory Patterns
When your pet spends time in a warm environment, experiences discomfort, or is put into stressful circumstance, then increased respiratory rate and effort commonly occur. Since toxins can affect so many body parts, seeing your pet breathe faster, show active effort with each respiration, or have open-mouth breathing (panting) are all signs a toxic exposure may have occurred.
When you pet is uncomfortable or sick, he may become restless and less-able to comfortably sit or lie down to properly rest or sleep. Pets that pace and are unwilling or unable to calm down are trying to tell us that something is wrong. As exposure to toxins can cause the sensation of illness or discomfort, your pet may pace as a result.
Vocalizing is one of the more noticeable signs that something may be wrong with your pet. From altered barking sounds to whining, howling, and others, changes in a pet’s vocalizations can correlate with toxic exposure.
Like pacing and panting, generalized unusual behavior like your pet “not acting like himself” or “ain’t doing right” (which prompted the veterinary term ADR) are all signs that your pet may have been sickened by toxins.
When toxic exposure has a negative enough impact on the body, especially on the nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, then your pet may collapse. Collapsing is a serious sign that merits that your pet needs immediate evaluation by a veterinarian.
Similar to collapse, when toxins damage your pet’s organ systems to a degree exceeding the body’s ability to compensate then coma will occur. Coma is a state where your pet is minimally to non-responsive to stimuli (vocal cues, touch, etc.) and can appear dead due to significantly suppressed breathing and heart rate.
When a toxic exposure has overwhelmed a pet’s body and medical treatment cannot cause sufficient improvement, then death occurs.
When owners are able to recognize the clinical signs pets exhibit upon being exposed to toxins, the likelihood is higher that the pet will be examined by a veterinarian and receive treatment.
With any suspected or known toxic exposures, immediately call your veterinarian or local emergency veterinary hospital. Additionally, start a consultation with ASPCA, Animal Poison Control Center or Pet Poison Helpline, as a board certified veterinary toxicologist can provide experienced insight into the most-appropriate treatment for your pet.
Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to toxic exposures, so always be on the lookout for household and environmental toxins that could sicken your pet. The Animal Poison Control Center offers a free mobile device app listing over 200 common poisons that can help owners recognize toxins anywhere and anytime.
I hope that your pet never experiences illness from a toxic exposure. Awareness of the toxins lurking in our shared environment and the clinical signs of toxicity are crucial keys to keeping our pets safe.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).