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The top 10 causes of poisoning in dogs and cats

Pet poisoning is all too common, and all too often fatal. If you think your pet may have ingested a toxic substance, seek immediate veterinary advice.

A little of what’s bad for them

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) releases an annual list of the most common causes of pet poisoning reported to their poisons hotline service. We do not have a similar service here in Australia but it’s likely that the ASPCA’s findings would be similar in this country.

Our own experience at Alpine Animal Doctors is that poisoning from foods toxic to pets — with chocolate easily topping the list — is more common than incidents involving medications or insecticides but we do see pets affected by all of the substances reported to the ASPCA Poisons Hotline.

These substances represent the most commonly reported cases but they’re really just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of potentially toxic foods, chemicals and household products which can seriously damage your pet’s skin, eyes and internal organs.

We can never hope to know exactly what our pets are getting up to every minute of every day, but pet owners do need to be very vigilant about what they give their pets as treats, and very careful to keep all potentially toxic products and substances where animals cannot get at them.

Any case of poisoning is serious. In most cases, even if we can save your furry friend’s life, there may be lasting damage that can leave your pet with conditions requiring ongoing treatment.

When medicines can kill

Almost 25 per cent of calls were related to human medications accidentally ingested by pets. The most common were over-the-counter medicines such as painkillers (Panadol, Ibuprofen etc.), and prescription antidepressants and ADHD medications. Keep all medications well out of the reach of curious pets. So-called ‘recreational’ drugs are particularly dangerous to pets.

Killer fly sprays

About 20 per cent of calls concerned insecticide poisonings, mostly from incorrect use of the products commonly used on pets for flea control, or careless use of household insecticides used to control crawling and flying insects. The most serious poisonings occurred when products not labelled for use in cats were applied to them. Always follow label directions.

Dangerous baits

Number three in the top ten were baits used to kill mice and rats. These are mostly grain-based, and flavoured to attract rodents, which also makes them attractive to dogs and cats.

Several different types of rodenticides can cause seizures, internal bleeding or kidney failure. Make sure these products are kept out of reach of curious pets, and baits are carefully placed only in areas that pets cannot access.

Their last meal?

Xylitol, grapes, raisins, onions and garlic are the most commonly toxic foods ingested by pets in the USA. Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs, while onions and garlic can cause anaemia if sufficient is ingested. Xylitol, a sugar alcohol used to sweeten sugar-free gums and mints, can cause low blood sugar and liver failure in dogs. For more information see this fact sheet.

Like lollies to your pet

Although they’re not as dangerous to animals as medicines designed for people, overdosing can be a serious problem. Many medications made for pets are flavoured to make it easier for you to get your pet to take their medicine. Some are tasty enough that animals may ingest the entire bottle. Common chewable medications include arthritis and incontinence medications. You should contact the hospital if your pet ingests more than the correct dose of medication.

Sweet treats that can kill

Although it comes in at number six in the ASPCA findings, our own experience is that toxic reactions to chocolate in local pets are much more common.

Chocolate contains methylxanthines, which act as stimulants to our pets. Methylxanthines can cause agitation, vomiting, diarrhoea, high heart rate, muscle tremors, seizures and death. The darker the chocolate, the more methylxanthines it contains, with unsweetened cooking chocolate the worse. You can learn more about how chocolate, and other common food items, affects your pet, and how Alpine Animal Doctors treats poison cases in this article.

Pets will eat anything

Cleaning supplies, such as bleach, acids, alkalis and other detergents were surprisingly high on the list of common poison causes. These can cause corrosive injury to the mouth and stomach. Other household items such as batteries and liquid potpourri can cause similar problems. Always keep these toxins behind securely locked doors.

Dangers in the garden

Both house plants and outdoor plants can be ingested by pets, and many contain toxins in their leaves, stems or flowers. Lilies can cause life-threatening kidney failure in cats, while sago palms can cause liver failure in dogs and cats. Tomato stems and leaves are also toxic. Choose your house and garden plants carefully to avoid risk to pets.

Be careful when you spray

Many herbicides have a salty taste, and pets will commonly ingest them. Always follow label directions and keep pets away from treated plants/areas until they are dry (the product label should tell you how long this should be). Even eating grass recently treated with herbicides can cause toxic reactions in your pet.

Lock the shed!

Antifreeze, fertilisers and solvents are a few of many common substances that animals can find outdoors, and will often be curious enough to ingest. Keep these items in securely locked sheds/cupboards or on high shelves where pets cannot get to them.


E&OE. The information provided in the articles on this site is intended as a guide to assist readers to become better informed about health issues that may affect their pets and livestock. They are not a substitute for appropriate veterinary advice and treatment. They should not be used for diagnosis or treatment of any individual animal and no person should place reliance on information derived from them, where such reliance may result in loss, damage or injury. Always consult a qualified veterinarian to obtain advice.

Although Alpine Animal Doctors make every effort to ensure that the information contained in our articles is accurate and up-to-date we can accept no responsibility for errors or omissions that may occur.