Strychnine poisoning

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Why is it important?

Strychnine is a dangerous poison used in pest management, generally for below-ground use and it has unfortunately sometimes been used to maliciously poison pet dogs and cats.

What is it?

Strychnine is a toxin (technically, an indole alkaloid) derived from Strychnos trees. It is rapidly absorbed from the stomach once eaten, causing dangerous effects on the nervous and muscular symptoms. In poisonings, seizure symptoms can occur within 15 minutes to 2 hours. Strychnine poisoning can be fatal to pets.

What animals are at risk?

Both dogs and cats can be susceptible to strychnine poisoning, with a higher occurrence in dogs due to them being more likely to scavenge food items which may contain baits (malicious or accidental).

What are the symptoms?

Clinical signs of strychnine poisoning include:

  • Anxious and unsettled demeanour.
  • Fever.
  • Salivation.
  • Tremors progressing to seizures.
  • Animals often have a rigid ‘sawhorse’ stance.
  • Sudden death.
  • Due to the quick onset of symptoms, urgent veterinary attention is required.

Is there any first aid I can do?

If you notice your pet eat something unusual, then try to remove the source of the possible poison if found (eg poison baits), and keep pets calm whilst seeking urgent veterinary attention.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosis of strychnine poisoning is usually based on history of possible exposure and the clinical signs. There are several other poisons which cause similar clinical signs in pets.

How can it be treated?

Depending on the extent of the presenting symptoms, your vet may look to empty the stomach contents either by making the pet vomit, or if symptoms have already progressed then by using a gastric lavage (stomach pump) procedure and administration of activated charcoal to bind up any poison in the gut.

Further management of affected pets includes controlling any seizures through the use of medications, and sometimes general anaesthesia to calm the animal. Intravenous fluids and other supportive medications will often also be administered. Treatment may take several days and the prognosis will vary depending on the amount of poison that has been absorbed.

How can I prevent it?

It can be difficult to prevent access to maliciously poisoned baits, apart from undertaking avoidance training as part of your behaviour training with your pet to try and teach them not to eat discarded food items.

If using baits legally, it is important to make sure that they are placed well out of the reach of pets and other non-target species.