News Item | PAWS Chicago

Your Home Can Be Hazardous to Your Pet’s Health

by Dr. Robert Dann, DVM | May 01, 2012

My father worked as an insurance agent for more than 60 years and spent much of his career advising people on how to avoid risk. I would often hear him say, “There is no such thing as an accident. An accident only happens when people do something that allows it to occur.” Although I may not agree with my dad’s assessment 100 percent of the time, when I think of all the preventable household problems I have seen afflict my patients over the years, I can only nod at Dad’s wisdom. People often go to great lengths to make their homes childproof. Unfortunately, pet parents sometimes fail to undertake the same precautions, opening the way for dangerous mishaps to occur. 

Socks, string and other things 

Experience has shown that pets will try to chew or eat almost anything! Although many of the objects pets consume are toxic, those that are nontoxic can be just as dangerous. Dogs are attracted to scents and often find the body odors associated with dirty clothes to be irresistible. A pair of socks or underpants left on the floor is an open invitation for a hungry canine to eat them. Once swallowed, these can quickly lead to a bowel obstruction. Small children’s toys are also frequently gobbled up by our pets, and surgery is sometimes necessary to retrieve them. With cats, there is a greater tendency to ingest string, thread (often with the needle attached) or even a length of dental floss hanging over the edge of a wastebasket. Similarly, pets will be attracted to loose strands of fiber sticking up from a rug or carpeting, often pulling on them until there is a long strand to play with. Collectively, veterinarians refer to these as linear foreign bodies. When swallowed, the leading edge of these items moves through the intestinal tract while the trailing edge often gets stuck, sometimes under the tongue. Eventually, the bowel will “pucker up” like an accordion, necessitating surgery.

What’s in the wastebasket?

One of the most common hazards to cats and dogs in the home is an unprotected garbage can. When a pet gets into discarded fat scraps it can induce pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammatory condition of the pancreas. The sheer volume of large amounts of ingested trash can lead to the fatal condition known as bloat. 

Whether fed from the table or snatched from a kitchen counter or garbage can, many of the foods or food products we eat are actually toxic to pets. Most everybody is aware that chocolate is toxic to our furry friends (the darker, the more dangerous), but many other human foods are lethal as well. Avocados, grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts, onions, garlic, chives and alcohol can also have serious consequences when ingested. Raw yeast dough can rise in a pet’s gut, releasing large amounts of gas, causing pain and potential stomach rupture. 

Gum and Candy 

A lesser known substance, potentially deadly to our canine companions, is seeing dramatically increased popularity as a low-cal sweetener in human food. This substance is Xylitol, and it warrants special mention. While Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol extracted from fruits and vegetables, ingestion of only a small amount can be toxic to dogs. Within hours of consuming a food sweetened with Xylitol, a dog’s blood sugar can plummet dangerously, causing hypoglycemia and seizures. It can also cause potentially fatal liver failure. 

As a human food additive, Xylitol is a great product. It looks and tastes like sugar but is much lower in calories. As the public has called out for healthier snacks without sugar, more and more companies are now using Xylitol in their products. Chewing gum, jams and jellies, baked goods, candies, toothpaste and even children’s vitamins can contain it. Veterinarians sometimes prescribe pediatric elixirs from human pharmacies for small dogs and Xylitol has even made its way into some of these prescription medications for children. 

Around the house 

One of the most common emergency calls we receive involves the accidental ingestion of medications (animal or human) by our pets. It is important to remember that most medication vials are childproof, but not “pet proof.” Whether it is a single tablet left on a night stand or dropped on the floor, or the accidental consumption of an entire prescription after a medicine vial is chewed open, many medications can be highly toxic to pets. Among the most common causes of pet toxicity are antidepressants, amphetamines, sleeping pills, pain relievers and NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) products like Advil. Drugs containing Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, are especially dangerous to cats, with a single tablet being a potentially fatal dose. 

There are many other compounds commonly found in the home, unrelated to food or medicine, that have the potential to cause harm to pets. Many household cleaning products (especially those with bleach), insect baits, rodenticides, batteries and tobacco products are examples of items that should not be left where they can be discovered by a curious animal. And if your cat or dog regularly drinks out of the toilet bowl, you should know that many toilet bowl cleaners are hazardous when lapped up.

Be Prepared For an Emergency 

Always keep the phone number of your veterinarian and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435) readily accessible. If you suspect your pet has swallowed something toxic, the Animal Poison Control Center’s 24-hour hotline is staffed by trained toxicologists ready to help you. It is also advisable to keep a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, 3% USP, handy at all times in case it is necessary to induce vomiting. 

Being a veterinarian I like to think I’m pretty aware of the hazards to my pets in our own home. I also think we keep our home in a “pet safe” condition. In preparation for writing this article I walked around my house to identify any lurking dangers. Was I ever surprised! The door to our clothes dryer was open and the only thing in the dryer was a fabric softener sheet, an easy and toxic target for a dog. One of my children left a TV remote controller on a couch. Dogs like to chew these up and the batteries are dangerous. 

My daughter left her purse on the floor next to her bed. When I asked her if we could go through the contents together for this exercise, I found a pack of gum sweetened with Xylitol, antibiotic capsules and a small bottle of hand sanitizer with enough alcohol in it to topple our Chihuahua. On my wife’s sewing machine table were clumps of sewing thread clippings just waiting for the chance to obstruct our cat’s intestines. Wow! I thought our home was pet safe. 

Our animal companions bring so much joy into our lives, and they ask so little of us in return. So take a walk through your own home, and see what you can do to remove any unintentional hazards that may be lurking. Your pet requires only a bit of heightened awareness and vigilance from you to be kept safe and healthy for years to come.