Note: If you are reading this because you think your dog ingested arsenic, stop reading and get him to the veterinarian as soon as possible!
For anyone who has seen the 1944 Cary Grant movie Arsenic and Old Lace’, the poison holds a certain romantic flare that does not equate with the awful death of arsenic poisoning. In reality, acute arsenic poisoning causes vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, abdominal pain, drooling, retching, staggering, convulsions and muscle weakness before the victim collapses and dies. Napoleon Bonaparte, American Explorer Charles Francis Hall and the racehorse Phar Lap all succumbed to arsenic poisoning, as did many Impressionist painters, developing toxic levels in their system from the arsenic contained in Emerald Green pigment. Researchers now believe Monet’s blindness and Van Gogh’s neurological disorders could be related to the use of the pigment.
Arsenic was once the main ingredient in ant and roach bait, causing frequent accidental poisonings in domestic animals and children. In 1989, the federal government mandated the gradual reduction of arsenic used in common household products thus resulting in less acute arsenic poisoning in domestic animals.
Symptoms include :
Most often the diagnosis of arsenic poisoning is made by someone witnessing the animal actually ingest the poison. Thankfully, the initial symptom of arsenic poisoning is vomiting, ridding the body of any of the toxin that remains undigested in the stomach. Liver and kidney damage brought about by the toxin is the usual cause of death although in cases where only a small amount was ingested, animals respond well to treatment.
Diagnosing Arsenic Poisoning in Dogs
Diagnosis is difficult in acute cases. Long-term arsenic exposure accumulates in the hair and fingernail so diagnosis is possible by testing samples but this is rarely on domestic animals. A urine sample or testing the stomach contents can confirm the ingestion of the toxin but results are often not fast enough to confirm arsenic poisoning and help with treatment.
Lethal doses of arsenic vary between one and twelve mg of arsenic per pound of body weight and symptoms develop within half an hour of ingestion.
Most often, vets are dependent on the owner saying the animal ate old roach poison and the symptoms the pet is displaying. As heartworm treatment (not preventive) contains arsenic, this is now the most common way animals are poisoned and if a pet is under a doctor’s care for heartworm, this should be made clear to the attending veterinarian.
Other tests can include a CBC (complete blood count) which would come back as normal, a broad spectrum biochemical panel which would indicate a mild increase in liver enzymes in a low dose poisoning and kidney failure and liver damage in severe cases.
Treatment involves expelling as much of the poison as possible while supporting the organs and systems that the arsenic is damaging.
Unless the animal vomits on its own shortly after ingesting the poison, inducing vomiting is not recommended as arsenic weakens the stomach walls. Instead, the vet will pump the stomach. Unfortunately, in heavy metal poisoning, activated charcoal is not effective so unless there is still some doubt to the nature of the poison, the vet will not use it.
Intravenous fluids are introduced for two reasons one to help excrete the arsenic through the urine faster and the other to help reduce the damage to the kidneys and liver by keeping them well hydrated.
Antibiotics, anti-emetics, vitamin B and blood transfusions are also considered depending on the severity of the poisoning. Within 48 hours, the arsenic should be excreted out through the kidneys and urine and the pet will be released to go home. Post hospitalization care includes a bland diet until the digestive system has healed and antibiotics as well as stomach protectants may be prescribed.
Although acute arsenic poisonings are less common, exposure to insecticides, herbicides, pesticides, insulation, wood preservatives, paint pigment and detergents can cause an accumulation of the poison in both animals and humans.