Exactly what to do if your pet eats something toxic

No one wants to think about their furry friend lapping up paint thinner or laundry detergent. But accidental pet poisonings happen—and they’re more common than you might think.

Last year, the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center received more than 180,000 calls from pet owners whose dogs or cats ingested something toxic. And that’s just one national hotline—that doesn’t factor in the countless pet poisoning cases handled by local veterinarians.

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That’s why it’s important to be prepared. Here’s what you should do if your dog or cat gets into something she shouldn’t. Plus, the one thing you should never do if you suspect that your pet has consumed a poisonous substance.

Common toxins to watch for

Chances are, there’s more dangerous stuff lurking in your home than you might think. According to the ASPCA, these are the potentially poisonous items that pets most often get into. If you have them around, be sure to keep them in a place that your furry friend can’t get to.   

Human medications including prescription, OTC, and natural herbs and supplements.

Human food including chocolate, coffee, onions, garlic, grapes, raisins, and xylitol. (Here are 8 table scraps you should never feed your dog.)

Insecticides and rodenticides.

Household items including cleaning products, paint, and lawn and garden products.

Veterinary medications. They can be dangerous if your pet consumes more than she needs.

Houseplants including aloe, chamomile, and many types of ivy. (For a full list, click here, and read our article on 9 common houseplants that are toxic to pets.)

Symptoms to watch for—and what you should do

Signs of toxicity can vary depending on what your pet has ingested. But they could include things like vomiting or diarrhea, shaking, lack of coordination, coughing, sneezing, trouble breathing, or seizures. Watch for unusual behavior, too. Lack of appetite, drinking more than usual, sluggishness, and even extreme excitability all suggest that something could be up.

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In some cases, a potentially poisoned pet might not seem sick at all. Some reactions can take longer to occur than others, and a bigger pet might not have consumed enough of a substance to actually get sick from it, says Rachel Barrack, DVM, integrative veterinarian and owner of Animal Acupuncture. (After all, we’ve all heard about a miracle dog that scarfed down a chocolate bar and was perfectly fine.)

So keep your eyes peeled for other signs for something gone awry. If you come across a container that’s open or spilled, or find an empty wrapper or torn-open packaging, think about whether your pet could have gotten into the item. If there’s even a chance that the answer could be yes, you should assume that she could be at risk for being poisoned.

When that happens, here’s what you should do:

Put your pet in a safe space. Get him away from the toxin so he can’t ingest any more of it. (You can deal with cleanup later.) If you have any other animals, secure them in a separate space so they can’t come in contact with the poisonous substance or with your pet.

Call the vet ASAP. Even if your pet is acting perfectly normal. “It’s always better to err on the side of caution,” Barrack says. If it’s after-hours and your vet isn’t open, call the nearest 24-hour veterinary hospital or the ASPCA’s 24-hour emergency hotline at 1-888-426-4435.

Never try to induce vomiting without your vet’s OK. You could end up making things worse instead of better. “Some ingested products are caustic, and can cause severe esophageal irritation if vomited back up,” Barrack says.

Try to keep your pet from grooming himself. Especially if you think the substance might’ve gotten on his fur or paws. You may need to bathe your pet to wash the contaminant off, but check with your vet first. Washing could cause some chemicals (like those used in flea collars) to be reabsorbed into your pet’s skin, says the nonprofit organization International Cat Care.

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The best treatment option will depend on what your pet ingested. Your vet might recommend bringing your pet in to give him IV fluids, induce vomiting, or administer activated charcoal (which can help absorb the toxin), says Barrack. She’ll also determine whether your pet needs further treatment. For instance, dogs who’ve eaten chocolate might need a temporary catheter to prevent toxins from being reabsorbed into the bladder.

What to do if your pet ate other non-food stuff

If your pet eats any object other than his food, call your vet. Old socks, dirty tennis balls, or even parts of dog or cat toys might not be poisonous, but that doesn’t make them safe. Soft items like socks or underwear can cause intestinal blockages. Sharp objects like sticks or bone fragments can do the same, and pose the added risk of puncturing your pet’s intestines, Barrack says. In both cases, your pet might need surgery to remove the objects. 

This article first appeared on Rodale's Organic Life.