This guide is provided by Dr. Jennifer Masucci, VMD. Jennifer earned her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Though we love them dearly, when left to their own devices, pets often get themselves into trouble. The cat shreds the new couch, the dog steals a tray of brownies, the bird escapes its cage. Hazards for pets are everywhere, and many of these are found in our homes. So when it comes to adopting a new kitten or leaving Fido with the dog sitter for the weekend, pet-proofing is vital to ensure our animal companions stay safe and healthy. This guide identifies and explains some of the most common household hazards.
If your pet has been exposed to any of these potentially toxic substances, contact your veterinarian right away, or call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435) or the Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661), both of which are available 24 hours a day.
1. Foods Your Pet Should Avoid
Many of the foods that we enjoy can be harmful or even fatal to our pets. It is important to keep any potentially toxic foods in secure containers and in locations where pets cannot access them.
All types of chocolate, including white, milk, dark, baking, and cocoa powder, are toxic to dogs and cats. The darker, bitterer chocolates are the most harmful. Chocolate contains two toxins, caffeine and theobromine, which cause vomiting and diarrhea initially, and may progress to restlessness, frequent urination, abnormal heartbeat, muscle tremors, seizures, and death depending on the amount and type of chocolate consumed. This website features a chocolate toxicity calculator and may be helpful to pet owners in case of chocolate ingestion.
As an added note, coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soft drinks which contain caffeine are also toxic to dogs and cats, and toxicity is associated with similar symptoms.
Onions, Garlic, Scallions, Shallots, Chives, and Leeks
Onions, garlic, scallions, shallots, chives, and leeks, whether fresh or in dried or powdered form, are toxic to dogs and cats. These can cause gastrointestinal upset with vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Their most toxic effect, however, is that they cause destruction of red blood cells, which carry and deliver the body’s oxygen. A low red blood cell count, known as anemia, may cause weakness, trouble breathing, rapid heartbeat, collapse, or death. Because many foods contain garlic or onion powder as seasoning, it is very important to read the ingredients before offering any table food to pets.
Grapes and Raisins
Grapes and raisins can definitely be toxic to dogs and are potentially toxic to cats. Though there are reports of grapes causing illness in cats, this remains somewhat of a mystery since most cats don’t readily eat them! The exact toxin in grapes and raisins is unknown, as is the toxic dose. Some dogs can tolerate small amounts of grapes, while others are highly sensitive. The larger the amount consumed, the more likely the harmful effects. Grapes and raisins cause sudden kidney failure. Signs of toxicity include initial vomiting, decreased appetite, and diarrhea, followed by abdominal pain and excessive drinking and urination, and finally failure of urine production and death. Since we do not know which animals may be affected, it is recommended to keep grapes and raisins away from all pets.
Yeast dough is dangerous to dogs due to both physical and chemical effects. First, once the dough is in the warm stomach, yeast fermentation causes it to rise. This results in stomach distension which can damage the stomach, and if distended enough can also affect breathing. Additionally, yeast fermentation produces ethanol, an alcohol which is absorbed into the blood. Signs include gagging and swelling of the abdomen, followed by lethargy, incoordination, seizures, and death. Keep dough in a safe location away from curious pets while it rises!
Sugar-free products containing xylitol are toxic to dogs but are not known to be toxic to cats. Xylitol is a sugar substitute that is commonly used in sugar-free chewing gum, candy, and baked goods. When ingested, xylitol causes the pancreas to release large amounts of insulin, and this insulin causes a severe drop in blood sugar.
Signs of low blood sugar include vomiting, incoordination, weakness, seizures, and death. Some dogs with xylitol toxicity may also develop liver failure. Signs of this include yellow-tinged gums, abnormal bleeding, and death. Make sure to avoid sugar-free peanut butter for those peanut-loving pups!
Macadamia nuts are toxic to dogs when ingested in large amounts. Luckily, this toxicity is not fatal. Signs include vomiting, weakness, incoordination, high temperature, and tremors. Symptoms usually resolve within 48 hours. Most dogs recover without treatment, but this may be necessary in cases of dehydration or very high body temperature.
High Fat Foods
Just as fatty foods are not the healthiest choice for humans, they are bad for dogs as well! Offending items often fed to pets include meats like hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, and bacon, and fried foods. Ingestion of large amounts of fat often causes gastrointestinal upset with vomiting and diarrhea. Additionally, a more dangerous condition called pancreatitis can result from eating large amounts of fat. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas which causes decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In severe cases, it can be fatal, so resist those puppy dog eyes and don’t share your burger!
Dogs are classically depicted as loving to chew on bones, but doing so can actually be very dangerous. Dogs can break their teeth on bones, which is painful and may require removal of the broken tooth. Additionally, bones can splinter when chewed, and these sharp pieces may perforate the esophagus, stomach, or intestines. This allows leakage of intestinal contents into the abdomen, causing a severe infection which requires emergency surgery. Bones may also obstruct the stomach or intestines if they are too large to pass. For safe chewing, stick with firm rubber toys that can’t break apart easily, or dental chews to improve tooth health.
All types of alcohol, including beer, wine, and liquor, are toxic to dogs and cats and should never be shared. Pets are very sensitive to alcohol, and can become easily inebriated and even die. Signs of alcohol toxicity include incoordination and increased thirst and urination, followed by vomiting, depression, low body temperature, seizures, and death. Most pets can luckily recover from this with treatment if addressed in a timely manner.
2. Household Items to Watch Out for
For reasons that aren’t clear to us, some dogs and cats enjoy chewing on or swallowing non-food items. These can cause a multitude of health issues, so it is important to keep pets’ living space tidy, and regularly survey these areas for possible hazards.
Batteries can be easily ingested by curious pets. However, if punctured, the inner caustic material can leak out and burn the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. If large enough, batteries may also obstruct the intestines. Signs of battery ingestion include drooling, lack of appetite, red or gray lesions in the mouth, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Making your pet vomit can make things worse, so take them to a veterinarian right away!
Coins and other small metal objects like paper clips or screws are commonly ingested by cats and dogs. In addition to potentially obstructing the intestines, there can be toxicities from the metals in these objects.
A single penny, for example, contains enough zinc to cause fatal zinc toxicity. Zinc is toxic because it causes destruction of red blood cells, liver and kidney damage, and irregular heartbeat. Signs of zinc toxicity include decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, yellow-tinged gums, seizures, and death.
Lead is another toxic metal that is found in paint from older houses, fishing tackle, antique toys, and golf balls, among others. Lead toxicity causes vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain, drooling, blindness, incoordination, and seizures. Long-term exposure even to dust from lead-based paint is enough to cause toxicity, so it is important to verify that this has not been used in your home before moving a pet in.
Cats love playing with string, but string does not love them back! Ingestion of any long, thin material including thread, rubber bands, dental floss, tinsel, or hair ties, could cause a linear foreign body. When this happens, one end of the elongated object gets stuck in place (by being wrapped around the base of the tongue, for example), leaving the rest to trail through the intestines. The intestines continue to try to push the trapped object forward, but in doing so become bunched up around the foreign material. This prevents passage of food, and in severe cases, the string may even cut through the intestines, allowing leakage of digestive material into the abdomen and causing severe infection.
Signs of linear foreign body include vomiting, decreased appetite, lethargy, and abdominal pain. Especially with kittens, make sure not to leave anything around the house that could be accidentally eaten!
When pet-proofing your home, it is very important to ensure that electrical cords are out of reach or hidden behind furniture or tape. Bad-tasting sprays can also be used to discourage pets from chewing these. Pets that chew electrical cords may have burns of the mouth and tongue.
Signs of this include drooling, reluctance to eat, and lesions on the tongue or corners of the mouth. Additionally, electrocution can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, with coughing, difficulty breathing, blue-tinged gums, and abnormal heartbeat. In the worst-case scenario, electrocution can cause sudden death in pets.
Many potentially harmful things are contained in household waste. Food waste can be contaminated by molds or bacteria which may cause vomiting, diarrhea, high body temperature, muscle tremors, and seizures. This may be fatal if not treated.
Any object that can be swallowed, like paper, cloth, toy pieces, or feminine products can cause obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. Obstruction causes decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, and requires emergency surgery for removal. To prevent pets from getting into the trash, use trash cans with secure lids, or keep receptacles hidden inside a cabinet.
3. Medications That Are Harmful to Pets
Some human medicines can be harmful and even fatal to animals. Therefore, medications should never be offered to a pet without first consulting a veterinarian. The following is a list of commonly-used medications that are toxic to pets.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used by people include ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen, among others. Though helpful to people, these are toxic to cats and dogs even in small amounts.
NSAID toxicity causes bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract, as well as sudden kidney failure. Signs include vomiting (possibly with blood), black or bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, increased thirst and urination, depression, seizures, and death. Cats and dogs naturally have higher body temperatures than humans, so “feeling hot” is not a reason to give them an ibuprofen!
Tylenol, or acetaminophen, is a fever reducer and pain reliever, but is not classified as an NSAID. It is toxic to both cats and dogs, though cats are more sensitive. Tylenol causes a condition called methemoglobinemia which results in decreased oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues. In addition, Tylenol can cause damage to liver cells leading to liver failure, though this is more common in dogs.
Affected animals show pale, brownish gums, rapid breathing and heart rate, vomiting, diarrhea, chocolate-colored urine, swelling of the face and limbs, and death. Due to its severity, Tylenol toxicity must be addressed quickly to be successfully resolved.
Some medications that otherwise could safely be used in pets, such as antihistamines or cough suppressants, also contain toxic decongestants. Decongestants include drugs like phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine. These cause vomiting, hyperactivity, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, elevated temperature, and seizures in pets. When selecting medications such as Claritin or Zyrtec, which are safe for use in pets, make sure they do not contain decongestant ingredients, as is the case with Claritin-D and Zyrtec-D.
Essential oils have been popular in recent years as forms of holistic medicine. Unfortunately, some of these can be toxic to pets through inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption. Cats are especially sensitive to essential oils, including wintergreen, peppermint, cinnamon, clove, sweet birch, pine, citrus, Ylang Ylang, pennyroyal, eucalyptus, and tea tree.
Oils that are toxic to dogs include tea tree, pine, pennyroyal, and wintergreen. Toxic effects vary by oil, and may include skin irritation, drooling, vomiting, intestinal bleeding, breathing difficulty, depression, tremors, liver failure, and kidney failure. To be safe, essential oils should not be used near or applied to pets.
Controlled drugs can have toxic effects in pets, just as in humans. Some types of antidepressants taken by humans may also be prescribed to pets to treat behavioral issues. However, ingestion of too high a dose of these medications can cause sedation, vomiting, diarrhea, high body temperature, and seizures. Marijuana is another controlled drug also commonly ingested by dogs, and contains the toxin THC.
While marijuana toxicity is rarely fatal in pets, effects do include incoordination, hyperactivity, drooling, vomiting, urinary incontinence, and in severe cases, seizures and coma. To avoid exposure, keep medicines in secure containers, out of reach of pets, and pick up any dropped pills right away.
If given incorrectly, even parasite preventatives formulated for pets can be harmful. This can happen if dogs ingest multiple oral doses at once, if a topical medication is ingested after application, if a medication for large dogs is given to a small dog, or if products formulated for dogs are applied to cats.
It is especially important to note that flea preventatives containing pyrethrins, which are safe for use in dogs, can be fatal to cats. Never use a dog product on a cat for this reason. Toxic effects range depending on the product and severity of overdose, and may include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, incoordination, muscle tremors, trouble breathing, and seizures. If an inappropriate topical medication is applied, washing your pet immediately with Dawn dish soap may help to decrease the likelihood of toxicity.
4. Household Products Your Pets Should Avoid
Whether found in the garage, basement, or bathroom, common household products can be toxic to pets. Depending on the product, these can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, so avoiding all potential exposures is essential.
Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting liquid that is toxic to pets. Though it tastes good, it can be fatal to dogs and cats even in small amounts. Ethylene glycol causes kidney failure.
Signs of toxicity occur in stages. Initially, pets can have vomiting, incoordination, excessive thirst and urination, rapid breathing and heartbeat, and seizures. After 36-72 hours, kidney failure is evident with enlarged, painful kidneys and lack of urine production. This progresses to coma and death if not treated. This toxicity must be addressed immediately, as the antidote is only effective if given within 8-12 hours after ingestion.
There are many brands of rodent poison available, which, though effective for killing rats and mice, may also be fatal to dogs and cats. Most rodent poisons utilize one of three main toxins. The first toxin includes warfarin-based drugs, which are anticoagulants and cause death via internal bleeding. Signs include coughing (possibly with blood), difficulty breathing, joint swelling, vomiting blood, black or bloody diarrhea, pale gums, lethargy, and collapse.
The second toxin is bromethalin, a neurotoxin that causes death via swelling of the spinal cord and brain. Signs include depression, muscle tremors, limb paralysis, high body temperature, and seizures.
The last toxin is cholecalciferol, a form of vitamin D that causes death via kidney failure. Signs include lethargy, vomiting (possibly with blood), and increased drinking and urination. As these toxins have very different actions, it is imperative to know which product your pet may have ingested if there is an exposure. Save any packaging or remaining bait, as this may be vital for identification and thus treatment.
Common household cleaning products can be toxic to pets. Bleach, for example, is safe when diluted correctly, but if too concentrated can cause irritation to the eyes, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. Signs of this include excessive tearing, squinting, eyelid swelling, coughing, sneezing, drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Fabric softener sheets can cause mouth ulcers with drooling, vomiting, and fever. Toilet bowl cleaner, carpet cleaner, or other all-purpose cleaners, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can cause decreased appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. Strongly-concentrated products may cause skin irritation or burns with contact.
Insecticides, Herbicides, Fertilizers
Depending on their active ingredients, insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers can be harmful and even fatal to pets. Most insecticides cause only mild gastrointestinal upset unless ingested in large quantities. However, products containing organophosphates or carbamates are extremely toxic to pets. Signs include excessive drooling, tearing, urination, and defecation, as well as difficulty breathing, seizures, and death. As previously mentioned in association with flea preventatives, some insecticides also contain pyrethrins, which can be fatal to cats.
Fertilizer can also be harmful to pets by obstructing the gastrointestinal tract, or due to toxicity from its components. In addition to possible herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides, fertilizers contain nutrients which can be toxic in large quantities, like nitrogen, iron, and zinc. Signs of fertilizer toxicity include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, and difficulty breathing.
Lastly, though not an insecticide, dogs and cats are very sensitive to human mosquito repellents containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), and if exposed may have neurological effects including muscle tremors, seizures, and death.
5. Hazardous Plants
Many indoor or outdoor plants can be toxic to dogs and cats if ingested, and effects vary among plant species. For example, lilies cause sudden kidney failure in cats, sago palms cause intestinal upset, seizures, and liver damage, and azaleas or tulips cause intestinal upset, weakness, abnormal heartbeat, and death. Therefore, it is important to check that a plant is safe for pets before introducing it to your home. An extensive list of toxic plants can be found here.
6. Guide for Exotic Pet Owners
Although dogs and cats have been the main focus of this guide, there are a few important toxicities to be aware of for owners of birds, small mammals, or reptiles.
Some types of non-stick cookware (such as Teflon), self-cleaning ovens, hair dryers, waffle irons, non-stick clothing irons, or space heaters can release Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) when heated. This is a colorless, odorless gas that is toxic to birds, causing difficulty breathing, weakness, depression, and death. To prevent this, do not use these products altogether, or ensure that your home is well-ventilated, birds are not located near the kitchen, and avoid over-heating cookware. In addition, birds are highly sensitive to strongly-smelling products such as aerosols, perfumes, paint, tobacco, scented candles, and air fresheners, so avoid use of these products around your feathered friends as well.
Though dogs and cats are not usually affected, birds, mice, rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits are highly sensitive to a toxin in avocados called persin. This is found in the leaves, fruit, seeds, and bark of avocado plants, and causes death of the heart muscle with subsequent heart failure and death. Signs of toxicity include lethargy, difficulty breathing, blue-tinged gums, coughing, and death. Sheep, goats, and cows are also sensitive to persin and should not be offered avocado.
Just as described above for cats and dogs, lead and zinc toxicities are also applicable to birds. These metals may be in old paint, metal toys, jewelry, fishing weights, etc. Signs of toxicity include lethargy, lack of appetite, regurgitation, diarrhea, abnormal behaviors, and seizures.
Before bringing any type of pet into your home, it is important to research which household hazards may affect them, and remove access to these as much as possible. Accidents do happen, so pet insurance may be a worthwhile consideration for many pet owners. By being well-informed and vigilant, you can help to keep your pet safe and avoid unnecessary trips to the veterinarian!
Here’s an exhaustive list of links if you’d like to further research any of what we touched upon in this guide.