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March is Pet Poison Prevention Month

By: Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna
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Welcome to March!  Personally, I am hoping this month will shepherd in some warmer weather so I can get outside with friends, family, and all of the dogs!  Sophie does OK in the cold, but winter is hard on her arthritis, so warmer weather will be a boon. 

Along with March comes Pet Poison Prevention Month.  As the seasons change, dogs can be exposed to new risks.  In spring in particular, dogs can be exposed to toxins that have been hidden by the snow and ice.  Also, gardens can pose some significant dangers.  Pesticides—including those for bugs, snails, and rodents—are some obvious issues.  Some plants, such as lilies are also dangerous.  Some plants that grow in gardens, such as onion and garlic can also lead to problems like anemia.  But one of the most common dangers is something many owners don’t think about: compost.

Compost can be dangerous because as the organic material breaks down, it can release toxic compounds.  Additionally, microbes (bacteria and fungus) that assists with the breakdown of material can cause toxicity, including hyperthermia, tremors, or seizures.  I personally had a hard lesson with compost toxicity when Sam, my rescue dog, had compost binge without my knowledge.

Five years ago, when my family moved to Virginia, I started a compost pile outside of our garden.  Our dogs at the time, Gus and Sam, ignored the compost pile as it grew.  One night, however, Sam became nosy, and ate several items from the pile.  As I have stated previously, veterinarians are sometimes the “worst” pet parents, and this case is a perfect example.  I trusted my dogs to ignore the interesting smells “because I said so.”  Sam’s sense of smell and curiosity got the best of him, and unfortunately, it almost got all of him.

Within an hour of getting into the compost pile, he developed significant tremors and nausea.  At the time, because it was dark out, I didn’t know he had eaten compost.  (I wouldn’t find the evidence until morning.)  But my buddy was suddenly shaking uncontrollably.  As a veterinarian, I tried to assess his vitals, but I quickly realized that I was going to need emergency treatment.  At the time I was not working full time at a hospital, so I took him to the local VCA emergency room. 

The veterinarians onsite helped me piece together the puzzle.  They asked a barrage of questions about seizure risk (none), vaccines (up to date), and medications (arthritis medicine).  I had forgotten about my compost pile until one of the veterinary technicians asked if he had any exposure to compost.  With that single question, everything came together.  We treated him with IV fluids (to flush his system of the toxins) and muscle relaxers (to stop the tremors).  We also gave him activated charcoal to bind the toxins that were not yet absorbed.  Two hours later he was feeling much better, and I was feeling like a terrible Mommy.  But a few big wet kisses and tail wags helped make both of us feel better.  His lab tests started looking better, and he got his normal energy back.  It was about 3 a.m. at the time, and a good night sleep helped everyone.

The next morning, everything was back to normal—but with a few exceptions.  First, I had to remove all of the compost pile, and I ordered a compost bin to keep the dogs safe.  Second, I had to deal with a few charcoal-stained areas of the carpet.  What goes in the mouth has to come out, and it did, in very dark diarrhea.  Cleaning it up was my penance for my severe compost mistake.

I share this story to help remind you of some simple, but obvious, thoughts.  Spring is wonderful, but puppy-proof your environment every season.  Mistakes happen, even to veterinarians.  Don’t rely on commands to prevent something as severe as poisoning; even the best-trained dogs get curious.  Seek medical attention immediately if you notice something is wrong with your dog.  You know him better than anyone, and your veterinarian can help you fix the problem.  And lastly, it is a good idea to know a good carpet cleaner sometimes.

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