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Big spike in pandemic-related pet poisonings

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What’s it like working a pet poisoning hotline during a pandemic, when people are cleaning like crazy?

“It’s bananas!” said Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT. Brutlag is director of veterinary services and senior veterinary toxicologist for the Pet Poison Helpline.

Brutlag says call volume is up about 43% compared to last year, and says COVID is the culprit.

Tina Wismer, DVM, MS, DABVT, medical director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center, told NEWStat that their calls are only up about 10% over last year, but agrees with Brutlag that the pandemic is to blame. March was slow initially, she says, which wasn’t surprising, given that states were just beginning to shut down. Call volume picked up as more people started working from home and their “animals were getting into more things than ever.”

Brutlag agrees: “People are spending more time at home, they’re spending more time with their pets, they’re seeing their pets get into more things that they shouldn’t.” Things the pet might be getting into anyway when the owners are usually at work and wouldn’t be aware of it. “And because they’re seeing that, they’re calling [to find out] if it’s going to be harmful to the pet.”

Wismer says the jump in pandemic-related pet adoptions was another factor: “As we know, young dogs explore their environment with their mouths.”

COVID-related lack of access to veterinary care has contributed as well, says Brutlag. When a pet eats something they shouldn’t and the owner calls their veterinarian, the veterinarian may or may not be available to help them due to reduced hours, fewer appointments, or they’re simply overwhelmed with other cases. “They say, ‘call these guys [the Pet Poison Helpline] and see if it’s [a potential] emergency,” Brutlag says. “‘If it is, come back in and we’ll take it from there.’”

That’s often normal operating procedure even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, according to Brutlag: “When [anything] happens to their pets, people call their veterinarian first.” But most veterinarians aren’t toxicologists. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t know. Call the Helpline; they’re the experts, and if they say to come in, then come in.’” Brutlag says she usually ends up consulting with the veterinarian in such cases. “[Veterinarians] know their limits and they don’t want to treat a patient if it’s not medically necessary.”

Which means toxicologists like Brutlag wind up doing triage.

She estimates that about 20% of calls to the Helpline are pet owners calling after doing preliminary internet research on the possible toxicity of whatever their pet got into. About 80% are people calling at the request of their veterinarian. Wismer’s figures are comparable: About 75% of callers to the Center are pet owners referred by their veterinarians. Despite the spike in calls, COVID hasn’t really changed those percentages.

And although the widely publicized notion that many of the calls are due to concerns about exposure to chemical cleansers is true, Brutlag says that the most-common toxins are still at the top of the list.

Number one is human medication: Someone drops a pill on the floor and the dog darts in and snarfs it. Or someone’s counting out pills on the counter and the cat tongues them up. Sometimes, Brutlag says, it’s a double play: “The cat bats them off the counter, then the dog eats them off the floor.”

More commonly, a dog will simply chew open a bottle of pills—be it aspirin, blood pressure medication, and so on—and wolf down the contents. “Probably about 40% of our calls for dogs and cats involve human meds,” says Brutlag.

Number two is food. In descending order: chocolate, products containing xylitol, then grapes and raisins.

Cleaning products are lower on the list, Brutlag says, but they’re definitely on it: calls about pets getting into cleaning supplies are up dramatically over 2019. At first, she didn’t connect the incidents to COVID, which ramped up in March, because the timing disguised it: “We always get a spike during spring cleaning.”

Wismer says calls to the Center related to animal exposures to cleaning products are up about 64% over last year at this time.

Most of those calls involve pets walking across a counter or floor still wet with cleanser or drinking out of a mop bucket. The type of cleaning product makes a difference: “If these are the ready-to-use, diluted products, we usually just see mild vomiting and drooling. Exposures to concentrated products can cause more severe signs.” Those include bloody vomiting and ulcers of the mouth and stomach.

Her advice? “Keep pets away during cleaning sprees,” she says, “and pet-proof the house before bringing home the new puppy.”

One cleanser-related call stands out for Brutlag: a woman who accidentally poisoned her Yorkie with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It was in the early days of the pandemic, and she was dutifully cleaning her hands after walking the dog. And she figured, well, why not do the same for the dog? So she liberally applied big dollops of the disinfectant to the Yorkie’s paws.

The dog developed alcohol poisoning.

Brutlag doesn’t remember who called the Helpline, the owner or her veterinarian, but a toxicologist wound up speaking with both of them. They treated the dog based on the toxicologist’s advice, and the Yorkie recovered.

NEWStat asked Brutlag what pandemic-related poisonings could mean for veterinarians.

“Because we’re getting more calls from worried pet owners, they can expect to see more referrals for poisoning cases,” Brutlag says. “The longer people stay home, the more they’re going to be seeing their pets getting into [things], so [hospitals] will be getting more of those types of calls than before.” Brutlag suggests that veterinary professionals brush up on their toxicology: “Be comfortable with inducing vomiting in a cat or a dog. Know when to administer activated charcoal.”

“If people are using something,” she adds, “pets are going to get into it.”

To help prevent some of these incidents, share the Pet Poison Helpline’s video on cleaning around pets.

Photo credit: © istock/luliia Bondar