Items found around homes can be harmful to pets

Ocala's Charlotte Rozanski and her husband Ron learned the hard way July 21, 2012 when Gracie, their 4-year-old German Shepherd, chewed on a cycad sago palm offshoot and died from the toxin. "She was dead 36 hours later," Ron said. "We took her to the emergency vet (UF) 12 hours later and it was already too late," Charlotte said Friday afternoon, August 31, 2012. The toxin from the plant attacks and kills the liver cells according to Ron and the vets an the University of Florida. Their neighbor has since removed the sago palms in his backyard where his dogs roam.

Doug Engle/Star-Banner
Published: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 7:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 7:51 p.m.

Houseplants. Medicine. Baubles. Bits of food. The average home is filled with thousands of items that can prove lethal to inquisitive pets.


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In 2010 the ASPCA's nationwide poison control center handled close to 170,000 calls regarding pets that were exposed to potentially dangerous substances.

Nearly 46,000 involved drugs such as painkillers, antidepressants and diet supplements; 17,000 involved potentially hazardous human foods; and almost 8,000 involved the ingestion of plant material.

Other common emergency calls involved insecticides, rodenticides, fertilizers and exposure to cleaners, chemicals or heavy metals.

Two local families recently lost pets to such causes.

One dog died after ingesting a piece of highly toxic cycad sago palm in the family's yard.

A cat and a dog in another home died after eating pet foods for which recall notices were eventually issued.

According to Alessio Vigani, a doctor of veterinary medicine serving his residency at the University of Florida's Small Animal Hospital in Gainesville, pets frequently ingest harmful objects and substances.

"For services like ours that handle emergency calls, two calls out of 10 involve ingestion," he said.

Drug-related issues top the list because pills are easy to swallow and contain

concentrated substances designed to interact with bodies significantly larger and metabolically different from the average pet.

Vigani said a single over-the-counter pain pill can easily kill a ferret or kitten.

Because medicine is designed to take effect quickly, in many cases, "the absorption of the drug is so fast, that within 30 minutes most has been absorbed into the blood stream," he said.

Exposure to human foods also can be a threat.

Most pet owners have heard that chocolate is bad for animals, but fewer know that coffee and caffeine pose similar hazards.

Avocados, macadamia nuts, grapes/raisins, onions, garlic, chives and the sweetener known as xylitol also can lead to illness or death, depending on the animal's species and the amount consumed.

"Sugar-free gums are safe for us, but can make a dog extremely hypoglycemic," Vigani said.


Even products meant for pets can prove inadvertently harmful, due to contamination during the manufacturing process.

Ocala resident Verna Nichols said she lost a cat and a dog due to bad pet foods. In 2007, her 14-year-old cat, Lil' Girl, ate one of the 5,300 pet food products that were later found to contain contaminated wheat gluten from China.

"I took her to the vet, but she wouldn't let me give her any medicine. She died in my arms screaming," Nichols said. "Six months later it came out about the poison in the food. I'd thought it was something I did."

Last May, Nichols' 6-year-old pug, Princess Leila May, fell ill.

"Her gums were swelling up and she was choking," Nichols said.

She took the dog to four veterinarians over the course of a week, but each provided a different diagnosis.

"The last one took her x-ray and he'd seen something lodged in her neck," she said, but by then it was too late. Princess Leila May died May 20.

On June 30, Mars Petcare US issued a recall notice for three varieties of Pedigree Weight Management canned dog food. Blue bits of plastic from a broken conveyor belt had gotten into the food. The company has replaced the faulty part with a redesigned mechanism, and encourages consumers to contact their customer-care number. Nichols said she called, but was too upset to talk.

Vigani said commercial pet foods are generally safe and specially formulated for a pet's nutritional needs.


Another frequent source of pet poisoning is consumption of house and garden plants, since homeowners are seldom aware of the properties of every plant in their home or neighborhood.

Ocala resident Charlotte Rozanski learned that the hard way July 21, a Saturday, when Gracie, her 4-year-old German shepherd, happily chewed on a hand-sized offshoot while she repotted a yard plant.

The plant was a cycad sago palm, one of several plants that bear the sago palm name. It is native to Japan and commonly seen in botanical gardens and home landscaping. It is highly toxic.

Gracie began vomiting and the family soon realized something was seriously wrong. Charlotte's husband, Ron, took the dog to the University of Florida's Pet Emergency Treatment Service in Ocala. The veterinarians worked to empty Gracie's digestive tract, but the poison was already in her system and she displayed elevated liver enzyme levels, a common sign of inflammation or damage to the organ.

By Sunday afternoon she had been transferred to the Gainesville office, where Vigani helped treat her. By Monday morning, despite ongoing efforts to save her, Gracie's blood pressure had fallen precipitously and she was having seizures. She died later that day.

"I've had that plant on my pool deck for as long as I've had my dog," Charlotte Rozanski recalled. "We sat there and watched her eat it. If we knew it was poisonous, we'd have immediately gotten her help."

Poisonous plants are common in and around homes. The leaves and nectar of the azalea, for example, are highly toxic. Oleander is poisonous, with dogs appearing especially susceptible.

Vigani warns that "just chewing on the leaf of a lily can be fatal for a cat."

Determining which plants are pet-safe can be difficult as most plant sellers do not provide warnings regarding potential toxicity. Research via books or the Internet is a good idea, but can be misleading. When Rozanski looked up sago palms to prepare for repotting, she found information on a different type of sago palm.

Determined to help other pet owners avoid suffering heartbreak like hers, she is now trying to get a poster of Gracie made for veterinary offices so other pet owners will be aware of the dangers.

"The vets that I've dealt with have been just wonderful, and they want to help get the word out," she said.

Be mindful

Should a pet suffer from vomiting, choking, seizures, bleeding or similarly alarming symptoms, owners should call a veterinarian.

"If you see something abnormal in vomit, put it in a bag and immediately contact an emergency veterinary service," Vigani urged.

Be prepared to provide species, weight, age, gender and symptoms, including how long it has been since the symptoms began. Information regarding the causative agent is important as well, such as a package or container.

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