Who Knew?

Seemingly innocent objects, under the right conditions, can pose serious hazards

December 9, 2013 (published)
By Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, DVM, PhD, ABT, ABVT

Photo courtesy of Dr. Tony Johnson
This mass that was removed from a dog's stomach is composed of Gorilla Glue, which expands by pulling in moisture and then hardens.
A few years ago, a veterinarian friend of mine, Ann, was attending her family reunion, complete with scads of children and a smattering of dogs of various breeds and mixes. As is de rigueur for this type of familial gathering, the children and dogs played in the back yard while the adults congregated in the family room of the home, reminiscing about old times and catching up with what’s new. Ann and her sister were seated next to a window overlooking the back deck, where they heard some of the younger children laughing and squealing with delight at as they circled the object of their interest on the deck. “A little alarm bell started going off in my head, but I foolishly ignored it,” Ann later told me.

Within a few minutes, whatever was delighting the children seemed to have run its course and they dispersed from the deck. Ann’s 6-year-old son came into the family room to ask if he could have a soda, and she asked him what was so funny. “The puppy got a bag stuck on his head and was running all over bumping into everything. It was really funny! He musta’ got tired, cuz now he’s sleeping.” Ann and her sister dashed out to the deck to find the puppy, a little black and tan critter of indeterminate parentage, lying on the deck with a small Mylar potato chip bag covering his head. Ann ripped the bag away and was relieved to see that, though unconscious, the pup was still alive. Long story short, with oxygen supply re-established, the puppy quickly recovered with no apparent permanent repercussions. A few minutes more and a lovely family gathering would have been marred by a tragic death of a beloved pet.

“Who knew,” Ann’s sister asked her, “that a little potato chip bag could kill a dog?”

Who, indeed? Most pet owners know the basics of keeping their pets safe: keep them out of the street, keep medications out of reach, get them vaccinated against deadly diseases, don’t leave them in cars when the weather is warm, etc. Unfortunately, our houses and yards are filled with seemingly innocent objects that, under the right conditions, can pose serious hazards to our four legged companions.

Who knew that ‘non-toxic’ compounds may still be dangerous?

You look at the label, see the phrase “non-toxic” and just assume the product is “safe” (a term that makes toxicologists cringe) for you and your pets, right? Well, not always! Used as the manufacturers intended these products are not going to pose a toxicity hazard, but since when did dogs ̶ and it is almost always dogs who get themselves in these kind of jams ̶ start reading and following label directions?

Paintballs are colorful orbs used in playing war games. What could be more innocuous? You load up your paintball gun with the cute little neon-colored balls and head off in pursuit of your quarry (hopefully a similarly armed two-legged humanoid type). During your game, if you get “grilled” (i.e., shot on/near the mouth), the little bit of paint you might accidentally ingest is not going to pose a hazard because paintballs are, indeed, non-toxic. As in, there’s nothing in a single paintball that’s going to be absorbed into your system and damage your internal organs.

The rub here is that when dog meets container of paintballs, a) he investigates them with his mouth, and 2) portion control being a foreign concept to dogs, he can’t eat just one. So dogs will literally eat the entire container full of paintballs (imagine 500 paintballs in a Shetland sheepdog—it has happened!).

So, why would dogs eat the paintballs? Although after more than a dozen years working on an animal poison control center hotline I’ve pretty much given up asking why dogs eat things like curare-tipped arrows, formalin-fixed horse testicles, and 15-inch serrated knives (all true!), in the case of paintballs we may have a reason: I’m guessing that it is the gelatin capsule of the paintball that attracts them. Gelatin is derived from cow hooves, and we know dogs love cow hooves. And WHY are the paintballs so dangerous? Remember, there’s nothing in there that is going to be absorbed and cause a problem; the paintball components stay in the digestive tract where they do their dirty work. These components are what we call hygroscopic, meaning they attract water. A lot of water. Enough water that they literally suck a large amount of free water from the dog’s blood and tissues, which essentially dehydrates the dog and concentrates the blood’s sodium level to a dangerous degree. This high sodium level causes shrinkage of brain cells, leading to seizures and, potentially, death. Once signs develop, aggressive veterinary treatment is required to stop seizures and try to re-establish normal serum sodium levels.

Expandable wood glues containing compounds called isocyanates are designed to be squirted into joints between pieces of wood. Like paintballs, these non-toxic glues are hygroscopic and they expand by pulling in moisture from the air and fill in all the nooks and crannies between the wood pieces. There are a number of different brand names of these glues, with one of the more popular being branded with a great ape whose name rhymes with sarsaparilla.  Problems occur when dogs chew on a bottle of the glue and ingest the contents (licking little bits of glue off the floor doesn’t appear to be problematic). The moist environment of the stomach provides plenty of liquid, allowing the glue to expand. If the dog is lucky, she will be able to pass small clumps of expanded glue out through her stool. However, some unfortunate dogs end up with large masses of glue that fill the stomach, often making impression casts of the inner stomach lining. These glue masses will not break down, and the dog will be unable to hold down food, and oftentimes water as well. The dogs don’t feel too badly at first but as they become dehydrated and the glue causes inflammation of their stomach lining, signs of lethargy, retching and abdominal discomfort may occur. Usually surgery is required to remove these large foreign objects from the stomach before the dog succumbs to dehydration and/or starvation. The good news is that most dogs do very well following removal of the mass and make full recoveries.

Who knew that chewing gum could kill your dog?

Over 80% of gum sold in the U.S. is sugarless gum sweetened with a variety of sugar alcohols (e.g., maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol) instead of cavity-promoting sugar. Since most dogs don’t chew gum on a regular basis, why do we care what sweetener is used? Well, one of the sugar alcohols that is commonly used in sugarless gums, xylitol, poses a special hazard to dogs. We humans handle xylitol quite well, and it is favored for its cavity-fighting properties and suitability for people with diabetes because it doesn’t significantly affect blood sugar levels. However, in a dog, ingested xylitol triggers an intense and prolonged release of insulin that in turn results in a dramatic and potentially dangerous decrease in blood sugar. Hypoglycemic collapse and seizures can occur, followed by coma and death if untreated. In some cases, severe liver damage has also occurred. Although sugarless gum is the most common source of xylitol poisoning in dogs, other products that are made with it, such as sugarless candies, baked goods, and suspensions for medications; all of these can also pose hazards to dogs if ingested. When purchasing sugarless products, check the label and if the product contains xylitol, consider an alternate product, and be sure to store xylitol and xylitol-containing products well out of reach of dogs (and where the cat can’t knock them on the floor in an attempt to do in their canine housemate — who knew a cat would do such a thing?).

What about cats? We really don’t know as no one has studied the effects of xylitol in cats. Although it’s usually not a problem since cats don’t tend to care for sweet products, it might be best to keep xylitol-containing products away from them just to be on the safe side.

Who knew that home appliances could pose health hazards to pets?

A friend once e-mailed to me an image that purportedly showed what was left of a dog’s tongue after it had been caught in, and freed from, a paper shredder. At the time, the idea of this type of injury was on my “No Way” list, and the damage to the tongue looked so neat and tidy (bleeding had obviously stopped) that it looked like, well, a piece of paper that had been partly sent through the shredder and then pulled out. Having been snookered by Internet rumors in the past, I was suspicious that this was a well-Photoshopped fake, so I did some research. Not only was this not a fake image, but I found many similar images posted by veterinarians who dealt with these cases (if you have a strong stomach, Google “dog paper shredder” images; don’t search it if you don’t have a strong stomach). My emergency veterinarian colleagues confirmed that, indeed, dogs do get tongues - and ears, and tails, and hair) - caught up in auto-on/auto-feed paper shredders. In severe cases, tongues may be avulsed (the medical term for ‘violently ripped away’) at the base, and some dogs have been euthanized due to the extent of injury to their tongues. WHY would dogs be licking on paper shredders? Maybe someone was eating pizza or some other hand-held food while shredding papers so the shredder smelled like a tasty snack. Or maybe something in the paper shredder itself is intriguing to dogs (remember we said dogs investigate everything with their mouths?). Or maybe…. ah well, they’re dogs! However, cats are not immune; feet and long hair caught in paper shredders have resulted in toe/foot/tail amputation and loss of skin (termed degloving, because the skin is pulled off just like a glove) when cats have climbed or laid on paper shredders. So, please, for the love of your four-legged companion and any small children in the home, as small fingers have been amputated, go unplug your paper shredder and keep it unplugged when not in use!

On a related note, I know of two cats that are now bobtails because their tails got hung up in the paper feed of computer printers. Who knew?

And who knew that banging on your car hood might save a life?

When the weather turns cold, outdoor cats seek warm, quiet, secluded places to rest. What better place, then, than under the hood of a recently driven car that’s nice and toasty warm from the running engine. Until, that is, a human disrupts it all by getting in the car and starting the engine. That’s when all kinds of mayhem ensue as the rapidly spinning fan belt meets unsuspecting cat. The injuries that occur in these “fan belt cats” (it happens frequently enough that veterinarians have our own nickname for these kitties) include burns, lacerations, degloving injuries, fractures, amputations, severe head trauma and internal injuries. These injuries can be quite gruesome; just ask the owner of Edgar, a female cat who came home with part of her face dangling after a run-in with a fan belt (fortunately, veterinarians were able to reattach her face.. Gruesome or not, these injuries are extremely painful, costly to treat, and some cats die from them or are euthanized due to the extent of their injuries. With the advent of car undercarriage covers, feline fan belt injuries are thankfully less common, but they still occur with older cars or cars whose undercarriage covers are damaged. So give a kitty a break and thump on the hood or toot the horn before starting your car in cold weather, especially if the engine is still warm from a previous drive.

From electrical cords that puppies and kittens chew to washers and dryers that cats climb into, the home environment abounds with potential hazards for our companion animals. Understanding some of the more hidden hazards that occur around the house can help you take steps to avoid a “who knew” type of disaster.

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