What to do if your cat or dog is poisoned

May 9, 2023 - 5 min read
Dog laying on the floor next to opened chocolate bar

So many substances can be dangerous for pets, including many that are harmless to people. But while pet poison emergencies are always scary, being prepared can help you react quickly, calmly, and appropriately.

In this article, we’ll explore what pet parents need to know about keeping dogs and cats safe from toxic substances and what to do if your pet is poisoned.

Poisonous Substances for Dogs and Cats to Watch Out For

It’s impossible to name every substance that could potentially be dangerous to pets. Some substances are toxic to cats but not to dogs (or vice versa), and dosage matters a lot! Toxicologists are fond of the saying, “The dose makes the poison.” In other words, something that is harmless or even beneficial in small amounts can be deadly if a pet is exposed to too much of it.

With that said, let’s look at some of the most common pet poisons.

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Most Common Pet Poisons

Over-the-Counter Medications

Pets that get into drugs like ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can become very sick. These items are often found in homes and all sorts of unexpected places, like cars, backpacks, and purses.

Human Foods

Human Prescription Medications

Drugs that are prescribed by doctors to treat depression, heart disease, and other common human health problems can be dangerous to pets, particularly if they ingest large amounts.

Veterinary Products

Even though they are designed for use in dogs and cats, prescription pet medicines and over-the-counter products can still be dangerous. Flavored medications are often to blame for accidental overdoses (liver-flavored, chewable carprofen, for example), since they are intentionally made to be appealing to pets. Medications designed just for dogs can also be very dangerous to cats, so read product labels carefully!

Indoor and Outdoor Plants

Indoor and outdoor plants can be toxic to pets when they are chewed on or swallowed. Some types of lilies are especially dangerous to cats. Sago palms, azaleas, and rhododendrons are also frequent causes of pet poison emergencies.

Household and Outdoor Chemicals

Many items we use routinely in and around our homes are toxic to pets.  Potential dangers include:

  • detergents

  • disinfectants

  • bleach

  • drain cleaners

  • pennies containing zinc

  • adhesives

  • paint thinner

  • acetone

  • mineral spirits

  • turpentine

  • paint

  • spackle

  • varnish

  • sealants

  • stains

  • kerosene

  • motor oil

  • battery acid

  • antifreeze

  • fertilizers

  • herbicides

  • insecticides

  • cocoa bean mulch

  • slug bait

  • pesticides

  • de-icers


Unsurprisingly, products that are designed to kill mice and rats are also potentially fatal to dogs and cats.

Recreational Drugs

More pets are being exposed to marijuana (particularly edibles) since it has become legal in many states. Other recreational drugs, such as hallucinogens and opioids, are also dangerous to pets.

By no means does this cover everything that can pose a danger to dogs and cats. If you’re uncertain about whether a particular substance is poisonous for your pet, consult your vet, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, or the Pet Poison Helpline.

Signs of Pet Poisoning

The symptoms that a pet will develop after being exposed to a potentially toxic substance depend on several factors, including:

  • What poison is involved

  • The dose

  • The route of exposure: ingestion, topical contact, or inhalation

  • The pet’s species, breed, age, and health status

Behavioral Changes

Pets that have been poisoned often act differently than is normal for them. Depending on the specifics of the case, they may be lethargic, hyperexcitable (after chocolate ingestion, for example), or even appear to be drunk, which may be an early sign of antifreeze poisoning.

Tissue Irritation

When a pet licks or chews on a toxic plant or chemical, they can experience oral irritation. For example, when a pet chews on a Dieffenbachia plant, sharp and irritating crystals lodge in the sensitive tissues of their mouth. Pawing at the mouth, excessive drooling, and redness and swelling of oral tissues are common symptoms. Topical exposure to irritating toxins can lead to red patches of skin, open wounds, or chemical burns. Severe tissue damage is possible with toxins like drain cleaners and battery acid.

Gastrointestinal Upset

Many pet poisons cause poor appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea, especially when swallowed. Blood may or may not be visible in a pet’s vomit or diarrhea.

Bleeding and Bruising

Some types of rodenticides kill by preventing blood from clotting normally. Pets that have ingested one of these anticoagulant rodenticides can experience unexpected bruising and bleeding, which may lead to a bloody nose, coughing up blood, or blood in the stool. Internal bleeding can lead to pale gums, weakness, difficulty breathing, and collapse.

Trouble Breathing

Toxins can make breathing difficult when they are inhaled. Pets may also inhale chemicals when they vomit. This can be a big problem when a pet ingests a solvent, oil, or fuel and then vomits.

Anticoagulant rodenticides can also cause bleeding in and around the lungs, which leads to trouble breathing.

Neurologic Problems

Certain poisons affect the nervous system, which can lead to muscle twitches, tremors, seizures, and comas. Cats that have been exposed to pyrethrin or pyrethroid-containing flea and tick preventives meant for dogs can have symptoms that include agitation, incoordination, twitching, tremors, and seizures, as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal signs.

Organ Failure

Because the liver and kidneys filter toxins out of the bloodstream, they are often more severely affected than other tissues. Signs of kidney failure include increased thirst, increased or decreased urination, and vomiting. Ingestion of antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol can lead to kidney failure. Liver failure often results in vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, mental dullness, and a yellow tinge to the gums and other tissues. Xylitol exposure in dogs initially leads to low blood sugar levels but can eventually cause liver failure.

What to Do if Your Dog or Cat is Poisoned

Talk to a veterinarian or veterinary toxicologist immediately if you suspect that your pet has been exposed to poison or if they have any unexplained symptoms that are consistent with poisoning. Do Not Delay!Some poisonings can only be effectively treated in their early stages. Here are your options:

  • Call your regular veterinarian

  • If your pet is acting sick and your regular veterinarian is closed, call a nearby on-call veterinarian, animal urgent care, or veterinary emergency hospital

  • If your pet is not acting sick but you think they may have been exposed to poison, call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435) or Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661)

Do not try treating your pet at home unless you have been told to do so by a veterinarian or a veterinary toxicologist. Doing the wrong thing can make matters worse rather than better. For example, making a pet vomit after they have swallowed an irritating chemical will just cause more damage to the sensitive tissues in their esophagus.

Pet Poison Prevention 

Of course, the best way to treat a pet poison emergency is to prevent it from ever happening. Keep all medications (over-the-counter, prescription, human, veterinary, and recreational) and potentially dangerous foods out of reach of pets. Household and outdoor chemicals should be stored safely. Have only pet-safe plants in your home and yard.

It also doesn’t hurt to keep a few poison-safety items on hand:

  • The phone numbers of your veterinarian, the nearest after-hours veterinarian, and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435) or Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661)

  • Corn syrup for treating low blood sugar

  • 3% hydrogen peroxide for inducing vomiting (only if told to do so by a veterinarian)

  • An oral dosing syringe, bulb syringe, or turkey baster for giving hydrogen peroxide

  • Liquid dishwashing soap to remove chemicals from a pet’s coat and skin

  • Rubber gloves to protect your hands

Finally, consider purchasing a good pet insurance policy to help reimburse you for the costs of treating your beloved furry friend should they ever experience a pet poison emergency or other health crisis.

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Veterinarian, Veterinary Writer, Editor, and Consultant

Dr. Jennifer Coates is a writer, editor, and consultant with experience in veterinary medicine, science, animal welfare, conservation, and communications. She has written for outlets including petMD, Chewy, and ManyPets.