Winter Toxicities

By Dr. Kasandra Garner

Antifreeze poisoning is one of the most common types of poisoning that occurs in pets. Ethylene glycol is the main ingredient in most antifreeze products, and it has a sweet flavor that appeals to pets. Since 2012, manufacturers have added a bittering agent to antifreeze to help decrease its appeal, but owners should still be aware of the risks of antifreeze ingestion. Only a few tablespoons can be life threatening to a medium sized dog. Most of the time pets are exposed to antifreeze when the owner is unaware that they have a leak in the radiator, and the pet licks up what has spilled onto the ground. Antifreeze is also found in brake fluid and and engine coolant, so be sure to clean up any substances that appear where your car is parked quickly and thoroughly and have your car regularly checked for leaks. Store antifreeze out of reach of pets. You might want to switch to a brand that contains propylene glycol, which is much less toxic than ethylene glycol. Finally, don’t let your pets wander into other people’s driveways and garages.

If your pet has been exposed to antifreeze, immediate veterinary care is crucial. Antifreeze poisoning affects the brain, kidneys, and liver. The first signs are often that the animal appears drunk – lethargic, disoriented, and groggy. They will sometimes be nauseated and drool a lot. If they ingested a large amount, they may go into a coma. If the animal lives through this first stage, which lasts for a few hours, they will go into kidney failure. Depending on the dose ingested, your veterinarian can take steps to lessen the effects of antifreeze poisoning and protect against kidney failure, if the animal is brought in within the first few hours of exposure.

Another common chemical hazard in winter is road salt. Used by private individuals and local governments to prevent and treat icy roads, we do not often see negative effects from it in our pets but the potential for toxicity is there. The main ingredient in most ice melt products is sodium chloride (table salt), but they can also have potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, and calcium chloride or a combination of these ingredients. Any of these salts can irritate a dog’s paws or be harmful if ingested in sufficient quantity. When using ice melting products around your home, consider using non toxic brands that are labeled pet safe such as Safe Paws or Morton Safe-T-Pet. These contain urea compounds instead of chloride salts. If you walk your pet on roadways that have been treated with road salt, be sure to wash your pet's paws off when you get home and don’t let them eat snow or ice that has been treated. Don’t let them drink from streams or puddles running along roadways because of the risk of contamination with ice melt products. If your dog’s paws are cracked and irritated from the cold, consider putting booties on them so that the road salt doesn’t make the problem worse. You can also use products such as Musher’s Secret that is a protective salve on your dog’s feet.

Finally, be careful when using liquid potpourri. The essential oils that make them smell good, and the cationic detergents that allow the oils and water to come together, can be a hazard to your pets, particularly cats. Certain essential oils can cause digestive upset and/or neurologic problems. More commonly, the cationic detergents present in liquid potpourri can cause burns and ulcers in the mouth, as well as inflammation of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Even a few licks off the substance off their paws after walking through a spill can cause severe problems. Use these products with extreme care in households with cats – or better yet, don’t use them at all.

Winter is a great time to cuddle up with your pets. Be aware of these hazards to ensure you and your pet have a happy, healthy winter season.