The poison-proof dog: Part one

Six percent of canine emergencies in the U.S. are accidental poisonings

By Kevin T. Fitzgerald, Ph.D., DVM, DABVP
Police K-9 Magazine

Recently, the American College of Veterinary Emergency Medicine and Critical Care reported that each month, six percent of canine emergencies in the U.S. are accidental poisonings. Would you be ready to deal with an intoxication if your dog was involved? Would you know what signs to look for if your partner ingested a toxin? Would you know which substances are poisonous to dogs? Are you sure?

Let’s start at the beginning. Being able to identify problems with your dog’s health starts with being able to recognize normal canine vital signs.

Photo courtesy Police K-9 Magazine

• Temperature: Dogs are warmer than we are, because their metabolism is faster. A normal temperature for a dog is somewhere around 100.5 to 102.5° F, whereas we are about 98.6° F. Dog temperatures can vary with exercise, season, the type of coat a dog has, and conditioning.

• Heart Rate: Just as a dog’s body temperature is somewhat elevated compared to a human’s, his resting pulse is a little faster as well. Dog heart rates are somewhere between 90 and 120. This also can fluctuate with activity, age, temperature, and body condition.

• Respiration: Normal respiratory rate is 12–15 times per minute for most dogs. This can vary with exercise, activity, temperature, and age.

Vitals outside the normal range in resting dogs can indicate the presence of infection or some underlying disease process. Learn to examine your dog frequently. Do you know where his lymph nodes are? Enlarged lymph nodes also can indicate the presence of infection of other problems.

Critical Areas
Examine your dog’s mouth frequently. Check the gum color. It should be nice and pink like ours. (However, heavily pigmented dogs can have dark areas on the gums that are normal but can prevent you from gauging the actual color.) Look at the teeth. Determine if the teeth are normal and identify if any are damaged, broken, or missing. Is there any blood, pus, or swelling at the gum line? This can indicate tooth root abscess. Is there any unusual smell, excessive amount of tartar, or discoloration of the teeth? Is there any tenderness in the mouth?

Look at the ears. Here, too, is there any general tenderness, redness, or soreness? Any smell or discharge that is out of the ordinary? Has he been shaking his head or ears excessively lately? Examine your dog’s ears often, particularly in warmer weather. Law-enforcement dogs typically are larger, have bigger heads, and may have large, pendulous ears that lock in both heat and moisture. What a perfect combination for a yeast infection! That warm, moist ear is like a petri dish for bacteria and yeast (fungi). Be careful about being too vigorous in cleaning your dog’s ear or putting objects into the ear canal. Remember what your mother said, “Don’t put anything in your ear bigger than your elbow!” Still, this is good advice. Let your veterinarian examine and clean badly infected or sore ears and show you how you can treat them at home.

Next, assess the eyes. The pupils should be the same size and not excessively dilated or constricted anymore than your own are. Is there any discharge? Is the dog squinting? Squinting is almost always a sign of a painful eye and requires a speedy veterinary visit and an examination from your dog’s clinician. Is there any redness, conjunctivitis, or swelling of the lids? Don’t forget that dogs have an inside third eyelid (nictitating membrane) that protects the eye. Normally it is not visible, but in an eye with a problem it may become prominent. Older dogs may develop growths, skin tags, and lumps around the eye that can interfere with normal function.

The Proper Tools
Examine your dog frequently and thoroughly. A penlight is a good investment and can help you more closely examine eyes, ears, and teeth. Likewise, an inexpensive thermometer will help tell you exactly what your dog’s temperature is. A variety of ear thermometers are now available to make this easier. A hand lens or small magnifying glass can also help you to examine ears, eyes, and wounds more closely, investigate skin growths, or check for splinters, foreign bodies, or lacerations.

Assemble a canine first aid kit, keep it well stocked, and know where it is. Your veterinarian will be glad to instruct you in what needs to be included. However, a great way to start is to keep the following close at hand: a penlight, a thermometer, a magnifying lens, tweezers, electric clippers, a toe nail clipper, an eye flush or artificial tears, a triple-antibiotic ointment, gauze sponges, and bandage materials.

Eating and Digestion
Another area that needs close monitoring in helping to determine your dog’s well-being is appetite. Dogs are often portrayed as finicky eaters, incredibly picky in their dinner habits. The truth for most dogs is that when they don’t eat, they are sick. Loss of appetite coupled with exercise intolerance or reluctance to move can signal a variety of underlying problems (orthopedic, metabolic, infectious, dental problems, even cancer). Watch your dog’s eating habits closely.

Also, vomiting or diarrhea may signal the need for a veterinary visit. Pay particular attention to the nature of your dog’s stool and whether any vomiting has occurred. By learning what is normal for your partner, you will be able to recognize the abnormal (a disease process) that much earlier. Early diagnosis of disorders usually results in a much more successful treatment outcome.

What Constitutes a Poison?
You must become an expert in recognizing any one of the host of substances that are potentially toxic in your dog’s environment. Familiar products such as rodenticides, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), insecticides/pesticides, over-the-counter human medications, poisonous plants, chocolate (which containstheobromine) and other methylxanthines (such as caffeine and theophylline), poisonous plants, mushrooms, and venomous and poisonous animals in your area (toads, snakes, bees, spiders, and ants) are just a few of the many chemical toxins that can cause problems.

In addition, a seemingly never-ending array of new poisonous substances toxic to dogs are recognized and identified each year. Among these are xylitol (a sucrose substitute in candy, chewing gum, and toothpaste and dental products), grapes and raisins, “gorilla glue,” sago palms, macadamia nuts, avocado, onions, and paint balls have all been shown (just within the last 10 years) to be potentially hazardous to dogs.

In part two of this article (which will appear in the March/April issue), we will examine just what the outward clinical signs are that dogs display after exposure to each of these poisons, what you can do immediately to help a canine partner that may have gotten into one or more of these poisons, and what your veterinarian will do to provide the best treatment possible for your dog. See you next issue, and be careful out there.

Kevin T. Fitzgerald, DVM, is a staff veterinarian at the Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver, Colorado. He also appears on the television show “Emergency Vets,” seen on Animal Planet.

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