What's toxic in your house?

Five (lesser known) things in your house that are dangerous to pets

You may know about the big players when it comes to household toxins – rat bait, snail bait, antifreeze, lilies (cats) and chocolate. But here are some that might surprise you.

Paracetamol (Panadol®)

Paracetamol might be great for your headache or fever, but did you know that it’s toxic to both dogs and cats?

Why is it bad for my pet?

Dogs and cats can’t metabolise paracetamol like we can. Their livers don’t have enough of the enzymes that break down paracetamol down into forms the body can get rid of. Instead, the paracetamol tends to build up in their bodies and cause damage. 

In cats, the main damage happens to the red blood cells. The cells stop being able to carry oxygen around the body and break apart. In dogs, the liver itself is usually the first thing to be damaged, but their red cells can also be injured.

Both red cell damage and liver damage can cause death.

How much paracetamol is toxic?

The short answer is not much.

Cat are especially at risk of paracetamol toxicity. An average cat (around 5 kg) can be poisoned from as little as one tenth of a tablet (most tablets are 500 mg).

Dogs are less susceptible than cats, but a 10 kg dog could suffer liver damage from only two tablets.

What are the signs of paracetamol toxicity?

The signs of toxicity are related to the damage to red blood cells and the liver. They include:

  • tiredness, lethargy, weakness
  • fast breathing or laboured breathing
  • brown or yellow gums
  • poor appetite or vomiting
  • low body temperature
  • swelling of the face and/or paws (most noticeable in cats and is a tell tale sign)

By the time we are seeing any of these signs, your pet is in trouble. 

There is no blood or urine test that tells us if a pet has had paracetamol.

Can paracetamol toxicity be treated?

Yes, it can. But ideally, we want to start treatment as soon as possible after ingestion, and before signs are detected. 

There is no ‘home remedy’ for paracetamol toxicity. If you know or suspect your pet has eaten paracetamol, call us on 9699 7841 straight away. If it's after hours, go to an emergency centre.

We'll do some or all of the following:

  • induce vomiting (paracetamol is rapidly absorbed, so this might not be useful. It’s also hard to make cats vomit)
  • give activated charcoal, which binds to paracetamol still within the gut and helps prevent absorption
  • perform blood tests
  • give a drug called N-acetylcysteine, which helps the body to detox. It can be given orally or intravenously, and several doses are needed, so your pet would have to be hospitalised
  • give other medications that help the detox process (eg cimetidine, vitamin C and S-adenosyl methionine)
  • give your pet other supportive care such as oxygen, intravenous fluids and in severe cases, a blood transfusion might be needed

Prevention is always better than cure, so make sure pets can't get to any human medications.

Grapes and raisins

In 2005, a paper was published in a veterinary journal about dogs developing kidney failure from eating grapes and raisins. This took a lot of vets by surprise – many of us had given our own dogs a grape or two and they seemed fine!

Why are grapes and raisins bad for my dog?

The toxin in grapes and raisins damages the kidneys of dogs and can lead to acute kidney failure. 

Even with treatment, this can be a fatal disease.

We don’t yet know what the toxin is that grapes and raisins contain. It seems to be in some, but not in others (or at least not in a high enough concentration to cause problems). 

Unfortunately, we can’t say which grapes are safe. All sorts have caused toxicity including organic, commercial, home grown, seedless and seeded grapes.

Some dogs may be more susceptible than others too. Cats don’t seem to be affected, either because they are tolerant to the toxin or they just don’t eat grapes and raisins.

When we say grapes and raisins, we mean sultanas and currents too.

Grape juice, grapeseed extract and cooked raisins do not appear to contain the toxin.

How much is toxic?

This is hard to say. There is currently no scientifically proven toxic dose. 

The lowest reported toxic amount is less than 1 grape per 5 kg. Raisins and sultanas are even more toxic because the poison is more concentrated in them. 

While 50% of dogs who ingest grapes or raisins never develop symptoms, all cases of grape or raisin ingestion are potentially serious. 

What are the signs of grape or raisin toxicity?

The first sign of toxicity is vomiting within a few hours after eating the grapes or raisins. We can also see:

  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea
  • lethargy
  • increased thirst
  • very bad breath
  • signs of abdominal pain. 

These symptoms can last for several days, or sometimes even weeks.

Blood tests show consistent changes such as:

  • elevated blood calcium levels
  • elevated levels of blood urea nitrogen, creatinine, and phosphate (substances that reflect kidney function). 

These chemistries begin to increase anywhere from 24 hours to several days after the dog eats the fruit. 

As the kidney damage progresses, urine production decreases. When the dog no longer produces urine, death occurs. In some cases, even dogs which receive timely veterinary care still have to be euthanised.

Can grape or raisin toxicity be treated?

Yes. The first step is to try and remove the fruits from the gut. 

Grapes and raisins seem to stay in the stomach longer than other foods, and are not rapidly broken down or absorbed. This means we can induce vomiting and give activated charcoal even several hours after a known or suspected ingestion. 

Some dogs will also be admitted into hospital for IV fluids for 2 or 3 days. In hospital, blood pressure and urine production are closely monitored. Blood tests are usually repeated every 12–24 hours. 

In severe cases, dialysis may be required. This usually requires referral to a specialist centre.

The prognosis varies from good to poor. This depends on the time between ingestion and treatment; the response to treatment; and whether or not the dog is producing urine.

Even though you might have previously given your dog grapes or raisins before without a problem, our advice is 'don't risk it'. There are plenty of safe treats you can give.

Xylitol (sweetener)

Xylitol is a sugar substitute commonly found in sugar-free gum, lollies and baked goods. It’s popular with diabetics and those on low-carbohydrate diets. 

It’s also in toothpaste and other oral hygiene products due to its anti-cavity properties.

Why is xylitol bad for my dog?

If you eat xylitol, it is absorbed slowly and has little to no effect on your blood sugar or insulin levels. 

However, if your dog eats xylitol, it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream where it triggers a huge release of insulin. This causes a severe drop in blood sugar (called hypoglycaemia). If the hypoglycemia is severe enough, your dog may have seizures, go into a coma and may even die.

Xylitol can also cause severe liver damage in dogs. This can lead to bleeding, liver failure and death.

Xylitol’s effect on insulin and blood glucose in cats is not clear.

How much is toxic?

While different products contain different amounts of xylitol, the short answer is, not much!

One piece of sugar-free gum can potentially cause hypoglycemia in a 10 kg dog. Five pieces could cause liver damage.

What are the signs of xylitol toxicity?

Initial signs of toxicity include:

  • vomiting
  • lethargy and loss of coordination
  • diarrhoea
  • collapse and seizures

Liver failure can develop within a few days.

Although xylitol is generally rapidly absorbed, after eating sugar-free gum there can be a delay in symptoms of up to 12 hours. So don’t assume your dog is okay because he doesn’t show signs straight away.

If you think your dog has eaten xylitol, let us know straight away (call 9699 7841).

Can xylitol toxicity be treated?

Yes, but because xylitol is absorbed extremely rapidly, starting treatment as quickly as possible is best. 

Diagnosis is made on history of ingestion, symptoms, and blood work (blood glucose levels and liver values). Because of the rapid progression of the toxic effect, testing for xylitol in the blood is not practical.

Treatment involves administration of IV glucose and hospitalisation for around 24 hours. Sometimes medication to help protect the liver is also given.

Macadamia nuts

Macadamia nuts are a popular snack and are commonly used in many biscuits and lollies. However, they can cause problems for your dog.

Why are macadamia nuts bad for my dog?

We don’t yet know what is in macadamias that causes a problem in dogs, or why other animals aren’t affected.

We do know that macadamias can cause a temporary paralysis. 

How much is toxic?

According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Centre (APCC), clinical signs can appear with as little as 1 nut per kilogram of body weight. 

Individual sensitivity to macadamia nuts varies between dogs, as does the amount of nuts needed to cause a toxic reaction.

What are the signs of macadamia nut toxicity?

Signs usually appear within 12 hours of ingestion and last approximately 12 to 48 hours.

Signs include:

  • an inability to stand (which can look like a spinal cord disease)
  • depression, vomiting, tremors and a high temperature (less common)

Can macadamia nut toxicity be treated?

For uncomplicated cases, home monitoring is okay

If symptoms are severe, decontamination is recommended. This involves bringing your dog to us to that we can safely inducing vomiting and then give activated charcoal (which will bind any unabsorbed toxin). Sometimes an enema is needed.

The prognosis is very good, with most dogs returning to normal after 24–48 hours. 

Potential complications of macadamia nut ingestion include a gastrointestinal blockage, pancreatitis or gastroenteritis. If the nuts were chocolate-coated, the dog may also develop symptoms of chocolate toxicity.

Salt (eg play dough, salty water)

Ingesting a lot of salt at once can be dangerous as it causes salt poisoning.

While dogs don't usually raid the salt shaker, they do eat things like play dough. Homemade or store bought play dough is usually made from flour, oil and food colouring as well as large amounts of salt. Other sources of salt include salty water (ocean water or salt water pools), paintballs and soy sauce.

Salt toxicity can also occur if a pet does not have access to fresh water.

Why is salt bad for my pet?

Too much salt in the blood causes water to be drawn out of cells, causing them to shrink and die. 

How much is toxic?

This is hard to say because in most cases we don’t really know how much the pet has eaten or drunk. For example, when a dog goes to the beach and swallows salt water while playing in the water, we can’t measure how much he drank.

If you suspect your dog has ingested a large amount of salt, call us on 9699 7841 (or an emergency vet) as soon as possible.

What are the signs of salt toxicity?

The most common symptoms are extreme thirst and urination.

The symptoms of salt toxicity depend on where the cells have become damaged:

  • when muscle cells are affected, movements become stiff and you see jerking and shaking
  • when the brain cells shrink dizziness, convulsions, coma and death can occur

Other symptoms include vomiting and diarrhoea, lack of energy, lack of appetite, respiratory distress, fast heart rate, abdominal pain and tongue swelling.

Can salt toxicity be treated?

Treatment involves IV fluid therapy. The amount of salt in the body needs to be reduced gradually as a sudden change in sodium levels can cause a heart attack or brain swelling. It can take several days to bring the sodium levels down to an acceptable range, depending on how high the levels were to begin with. The damage to your dog’s brain and heart may be permanent.

raquel newman