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Are jerky treats really bad for my dog?

This is a news story that keeps cropping up, but it’s still surprising how little awareness there is of the problem. The evidence is increasing that there is some component in some types of jerky treats that can make dogs very, very ill.

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Grapes and raisins can kill dogs. Read this to find out how to keep your pet safe this Christmas.

Does your dog enjoy mince pies and Christmas cake? Beware: you could accidentally poison them.

For many people, it seems unbelievable that grapes and raisins can poison dogs. They're harmless to humans. We've all seen dogs occasionally eating foods containing raisins with no apparent ill effects. How can they suddenly be poisonous?

Why are grapes and raisins not always poisonous to dogs, and never poisonous to humans? First, like all poisons, the poisonous effect depends on the dose taken per kilogram of animal body weight. Large dogs can safely eat some raisins without problems. Secondly, the toxic ingredient in raisins seems only to be present intermittently, so a dog may eat raisins without problems on several occasions, then fall seriously ill the next time. What is the toxic ingredient in grapes and raisins? The actual toxic ingredient is still a mystery. The fact that grapes and raisins can be poisonous has only been deduced by circumstantial evidence, with many dogs developing acute renal failure for no obvious reason, with the only common factor being the previous ingestion of grapes or raisins. Samples of the fruit in such cases has been analysed, but a toxic agent has not yet been isolated. The best guess so far is that it is a water-soluble substance, and that it's in the flesh of the grape/raisin, but not the seed. One theory is that it is a mycotoxin (i.e. a poison produced by moulds or fungi on the grapes). The problem in dogs was first highlighted after a year with high levels of rainfall. This had led to damp grapes which were more likely to develop fungal growth. But why should humans be safe from this toxin? It's well known that cultured dog kidney cells in the laboratory are exquisitely sensitive to other types of mycotoxins. It makes logical sense that dog kidneys might also be more sensitive to damage by another mycotoxin, even its identity has yet to be established. So how much do owners need to worry about grape/raisin toxicity? If a terrier steals a mince pie, is a visit to the vet needed? If a Labrador has a slice of Christmas cake, do they need to be taken to the emergency vet? This is always a judgment that is not black and white. It seems sensible to look at the lowest recorded doses of grapes or raisins linked to acute renal failure in previous cases of poisoned dogs. This allows an estimate of the probable toxic dose depending on the animal's body weight. Grapes The lowest toxic dose is around 20g grapes per one kilogram of body weight. A typical grape weighs 2 – 5g, making a toxic dose is around 4 grapes per kg. So if a 5kg terrier eats 20 grapes, or a 30kg Labrador eats 120 grapes, there's a high chance of a serious problem, and veterinary intervention is definitely indicated. Raisins The lowest poisonous dose in confirmed cases has been around 3g/kg. An average raisin weighs around 0.5g, making a toxic dose approximately 6 raisins per kg. So if a 5kg terrier eats 30 raisins, or a 30kg Labrador eats 120 raisinsthey need to see the vet. Some studies have suggested that the toxic agent is neutralised by cooking, so cooked raisins (e.g. in pies and cakes) may not present such a high risk.

Important note

Please remember that the above doses mention quantities that have definitely caused serious kidney failure in the past. The decision on whether or not to take a pet to the vet is a personal decision, taken after balancing the possible risks. Many people prefer to take a conservative approach, to be as safe as possible. For example, if a dog has eaten even half of the above quantities, it may be safer to take them to the vet for “just in case” treatment.

What do vets do for dog that have eaten grapes/ raisins? 1) If ingestion has happened in the previous hour. This is the ideal situation: the vet can give an injection to cause the pet to vomit, emptying the stomach and removing the grapes/raisins before any toxic ingredients have had a chance to be absorbed into the bloodstream. 2) If ingestion has happened in the previous two days but the pet is still well Depending on the situation, vomiting may still be induced, activated charcoal may be given to limit absorption of the toxin, and intravenous fluids may be given to flush fluids through the kidneys in an attempt to minimise any damage. Blood and urine tests may be recommended to monitor kidney function. If the dog is well after three days, then the high risk period is over. 3) If ingestion has happened and the dog is unwell (e.g. vomiting, dull, inappetant) In such cases, the kidneys may have already been damaged by the toxin. Urine and blood tests will be carried out to assess the severity of the damage to the kidneys, and intensive care will be needed to save the pet's life, including high levels of intravenous fluids. The prognosis is guarded: unfortunately, some affected dogs die, despite the vet's best efforts.  Conclusion.
  • Keep grapes and raisins away from dogs.
  • If any dog eats them accidentally, phone your local vet (even if it's after-hours)
  • Tell your vet how many grapes/raisins were eaten along with the body weight of your pet.
  • Your vet will then advise you on the safest course of action.
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Murder mystery after Crufts: what to do when malicious poisoning is suspected as the cause of death

It's rare for the death of a dog to make international headlines. Jagger was a good-looking three year old Irish Setter who died in Belgium, the day after returning from Crufts, where he had won a prize for being second in his class. The reason for the interest from the mass media was this: Jagger's owner claimed that his death was caused by deliberate poisoning.

Jagger died soon after returning from Crufts

The day after competing in Crufts in Birmingham on Thursday, Jagger had travelled back to his home in Belgium by train, arriving around midnight on Friday. His owner then prepared food for him, but when she called him, he collapsed and started shaking, before going into a coma, then dying. She called her vet immediately, and an autopsy was carried out. It was reported that the dog's stomach contained "cubes of meat - some sort of beef-like steak - that had been sewn up with poison inside". At the time, the suggestion has been made that the dog had been fed the poison bait on Thursday, in a formulation designed to be released slowly. Samples were sent to the toxicology laboratory for analysis, and two poisons were identified - carbofuran and aldicarb. These are fast acting agricultural toxins, illegal in the EU, which would cause severe clinical symptoms to occur within half an hour to three hours, meaning that it was not possible that the poison bait had been eaten the previous day.

Poisoning is common in daily veterinary practice

As a vet in practice, I've often been called to assist in episodes of suspected malicious poisoning. There are three types of incident which fall into this category.

Unexplained sudden deaths

First, the unexplained sudden severe illness and death of a dog, where a grief-stricken owner is desperately looking for a reason for their pet's demise, and perhaps someone to blame. There are many possible reasons for sudden death, from brain haemorrhage, to heart failure, to an acute viral infection, to an internal catastrophe such as the twisting of an abdominal organ. When an owner witnesses such a death, poison is often at the top of their personal list of likely causes, but in reality, it's exceptionally rare. The only way that it can be ruled in or out is by carrying out a detailed autopsy, but even this is often not conclusive. Many causes of sudden death (as listed above) leave surprisingly scanty physical evidence, and it isn't as easy as you'd think to carry out a "poison analysis" on samples from the digestive tract. Each poison needs to be searched for specifically, and there are dozens of possibilities. Each individual test costs money, so it would be easy to spend many hundreds of pounds fruitlessly checking for poisons. Many cases of sudden death remain a mystery, with no definitive answer.

Accidental poisoning

The second type of suspected malicious poisoning happens when a dog shows classical signs of poisoning rather than the vaguer signs of just "sudden severe illness then death". Examples include neurological signs (such as staggering, fitting and collapse), digestive signs (such as vomiting and diarrhoea), respiratory signs (such as difficulty breathing) or signs linked to poor blood clotting. Sometimes a clinical work up can be fairly definitive that a poison is the cause, and an owner's automatic response is often that it must be deliberate. In fact, most poisonings are accidental rather than planned: dogs investigate the world with their mouths. Many poisonous substances are left within a dog's reach (e.g. rat poison, slug bait, and weedkillers) and this is the most common reason for dogs to be poisoned.

Deliberate malicious poisoning

The third type of suspected malicious poisoning is the real thing: when somebody deliberately leaves out poison bait for a dog. In thirty years of vet practice, I have only come across this on a handful of occasions. In most cases, several dogs have been affected and often the owners have actually witnessed their dogs taking the bait. In one case, the owner brought the remainder of the bait with them to the vet: it was very obviously poison mixed with meat. The signs of poisoning usually start within minutes or hours of the poison being taken. A specific poison is usually suspected from the signs shown by the dog, so only one test needs to be done in the laboratory, making it easy to have the cause proven. In most cases, there was an obvious motive for the poisoning (e.g. history of dogs chasing sheep in a rural area, complaints about dogs barking in a neighbourhood). Such cases are exceptionally rare, thank goodness.

What was the cause of Jagger's death?

Jagger's death definitely fits into the third category: deliberate malicious poisoning, but there is still a mystery over how exactly this happened. The timing of it - over 24 hours after leaving Crufts - means that it cannot have happened at the dog show. It seems far more likely that the dog picked up the poison bait in his home country, during the two or three hours prior to developing signs of toxicity. Was it a bait left out specifically for this dog? Or was it a bait left out for foxes in the neighbourhood that Jagger picked up by accident? Perhaps we'll never know the final answer to this well-publicised mystery. If your dog shows sudden signs of illness and you're not sure what to do, use the VetHelpDirect symptom checker: the chances are that you will need to call your vet at once, but this quick-to-use guide may reassure you that you are taking the right course of action.

Antifreeze, the killer chemical of pets – don’t let yours be a victim.

Antifreeze, which often contains ethylene glycol, is very good at doing what it says on the bottle.  If you have ice on your windscreen or want to keep various pipes and water features from freezing up, then adding antifreeze will do the job.  What the bottle DOESN’T always say, however, is that antifreeze is so toxic to cats, dogs and other small mammals and that it takes only about a teaspoon in a cat or a tablespoon in a dog of the substance to bring about a rapid and unpleasant death.  In fact, a recent news article has highlighted the fact that around 50 cats a month in the UK are killed by antifreeze poisoning.

Why is it such a big problem?

Antifreeze is a commonly used chemical, especially in the winter months, but many people are unaware of the danger it poses to animals.  Even small children are at risk, because ethylene glycol has a sweet taste that most mammals wouldn’t think twice about consuming.  It can leak out of damaged car pipes and onto the drive where cats then lick it up, or perhaps a small amount of the substance was left in the bottle and left open after use.  Ethylene glycol can be found in radiator coolant, windscreen de-icing agents, motor oils, hydraulic brake fluid, paints, photographic chemicals and various solvents.  A worrying new trend is for people to use it in their garden water features to keep them from freezing – an extremely dangerous action as many cats and also wildlife use these features to drink from.  Unfortunately, some heartless people also use the substance to intentionally poison cats that get into their garden, and there are several cases of this under investigation at the moment.

How does it affect cats?

Initial signs include behavioural changes, such as looking groggy or ‘drunk’, which makes sense because the chemical binds to the same receptors as alcohol in the body.  These initial signs may only last for 1-6 hours, then they seem to recover but although they may appear to temporarily feel better, the real damage has already begun.  Ethylene glycol causes crystals of calcium oxalate to form within the kidneys and because these crystals cannot be dissolved once formed, the damage is irreversible and rapid kidney failure results.  Within hours to days the cat may start urinating more, then not at all as the kidneys shut down.  This results in a build-up of toxins within the blood causing severe lethargy and lack of appetite, panting, vomiting, oral or gastric ulceration and sometimes coma or seizures.  Death almost always occurs within a few days.

Is there any treatment?

If you are lucky enough to see your cat or dog ingest antifreeze and can get them to the vet within about 3 hours before the product has a chance to be metabolised, then treatment is possible though the recommended treatment is very expensive and most vets aren’t able to stock it.  Interestingly, one of the treatments for antifreeze toxicity is ethanol (aka the ‘vodka drip’ you may have heard about), as the alcohol prevents the ethylene glycol from binding to receptors in the body.  This treatment is dangerous in itself however, so the prognosis for recovery is still guarded.  If treatment is successful, affected animals will likely have to stay in hospital for several days on a drip to flush out any remaining toxins from the body and some degree of permanent kidney damage is likely.

What can we do to cut down on antifreeze poisonings?

The best thing you can do at home is to not use antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol.  Many newer products now contain propylene glycol, which isn’t nearly as toxic.  Have your car serviced regularly to ensure there are no leaks onto the drive, and if you do spot a leak, clean it up immediately and dispose of all waste or empty containers properly.  Many suppliers put bright fluorescent green dye into their products so it’s easy to spot in a puddle on the drive.  Most vets stock a UV or black light which makes this dye glow brightly and finding the dye on the cat’s paws or muzzle can be a good way to confirm exposure.  If your neighbour has a water feature in their garden, it might be wise to confirm that they are not using antifreeze and to inform them of the dangers if they are not already aware.  Another recommendation that has been suggested is to put a bitter-tasting substance (Bitrex) in the antifreeze so that any sensible animal or child would spit it out as soon as they tasted it, but not all companies regularly do this.  This would also cut down on intentional poisonings.  At the very least, all products containing ethylene glycol should be clearly labelled as being fatal to animals.

Spread the word – antifreeze kills! Amy Bergs DVM MRCVS  - Visit The Cat Doctor website by clicking HERE