That Pill Wasn't Meant for You!

That Pill Wasn't Meant for You!

how to prevent and respond to pet poisoning accidents

By Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS

Accidents will happen. They’ll happen at the finest boarding facilities. They’ll happen to the finest pets. They’ll be a result of the finest employees. While pet boarding and daycare facilities prepare for accidents and even ask their clients to sign waivers acknowledging that accidents will happen, the truth is that, when they do occur, it stinks, (sometimes literally!) The key for successfully dealing with accidents, no matter how serious or insignificant, lies with the facility’s immediate and appropriate management of the situation in addition to the upfront and transparent communication to the pet owner.

Aside from injuries, potential poisonings in pet boarding/daycare centers are amongst the most common accidents. They often involve accidental overdoses or double doses of oral or topical medications. This typically happens when a pet’s care sheet or med chart doesn’t get correctly marked off, but can also be due to miscommunication from the pet owner. Recently, Pet Poison Helpline was called from a boarding facility because an astute staff member raised concern about the dose of liquid heart medication that Roxy, a 14 year old cat, was supposed to receive. The owner had left written instructions that said to give Roxy 5 CCs of medicine twice a day. As the staff member was giving Roxy her meds, she grew concerned that 5 CCs seemed excessive so she stopped halfway through dosing and consulted with the vet on staff. It was determined that Roxy was only supposed to receive 0.5 CC and that the pet owner provided incorrect instructions. Due to the potency of the medication and 3 times overdose, the veterinary staff at Pet Poison Helpline were contacted and advised the cat to be monitored for cardiac complications at an ER overnight. Thankfully, Roxy suffered only minor complications and was discharged back to the boarding facility the following day. Had the staff member given her the full 5 CCs, Roxy would not have been so lucky.

Poisonings can also occur when pets escape and get exposed to cleaners, toxic plants, or human foods that may be poisonous to pets. For example, Tank, a large 3 year old black Labrador retriever, bulldozed his way out of his kennel when the door was opened and immediately targeted a mop bucket of disinfectant to quench his thirst. While he was quickly removed from the bucket, it was clear that he had been able to get several swallows of mop water. Thankfully, a quick call to Pet Poison Helpline reassured the boarding staff that Tank wouldn’t be poisoned by drinking the mixture and instructed them to dilute his stomach contents by providing a bowl of fresh water to drink (which he readily did). When the boarding staff informed Tank’s owners of his escapades, they were very impressed with the staff’s quick reaction and prompt ability to obtain professional advice. In spite of this accident, they remained loyal clients.

How to Prevent Poisoning
While not all accidents can be prevented, a few preventative measures can go a long way towards reducing their likelihood.

Double check medications. Institute a policy of ‘checking twice’ before medicating a pet to ensure the right dose is given to the right pet. Also, use clear, easily understandable care sheets to help staff communicate when meds were given and by whom.

Keep toxic plants out. Just because a facility caters to pets, doesn’t mean it can’t have fresh flowers in reception or nice landscaping. The majority of plants are non-toxic so enlist the help of a veterinarian or veterinary poison center to help you select pet-safe plants. Always avoid lilies (Lilium spp such as Easter, tiger, stargazer, and Asiatic lilies) if you cater to cats. Instead, choose roses, Peruvian lilies (Alsotromeria), or tulips for cut-flower bouquets. For outdoor plants, scrap yew bushes (Taxus spp) and sago palms (Cycads, Macrozamia, and Zamias) in favor of catmint (Nepeta spp), lilac bushes (Syringa spp), or golden butterfly palms (Dypsis lutescens).

For a list of toxic plants, visit

Know your toxic foods. It’s imperative to have a posted list of toxic human foods in case of accidental exposure or so a well-meaning staff member doesn’t accidentally feed Fido or Fluffy something they shouldn’t. For example, never feed grapes or raisins to dogs as they cause kidney failure. Remind your staff that avocado is toxic for birds, especially since some bird owners aren’t even aware. Cats are very sensitive to onions, garlic and chives (Allium spp) and poisoning has occurred when they’ve been given baby food with garlic powder. For a list of toxic and non-toxic human foods, visit

Stay informed. Simply having a basic working understanding of what common people foods, plants, and products are toxic to pets will go a long way in preventing pet poisonings, both on the job and at home. Don’t rely on ‘Dr. Google’ and, instead, utilize reputable websites and services such as Pet Poison Helpline, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and local veterinarians to obtain information.

What to Do If a Pet May Be Poisoned
Get help! If the pet is still asymptomatic, call the facility’s veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline immediately. Time is of the essence. The faster you consult with a veterinary professional, the better your chances of saving the pet, preventing or limiting the extent of poisoning, and reducing medical care and costs. For example, if a dog was mistakenly given an oral medication meant for a different dog, a veterinary poison control professional can quickly tell you whether inducing vomiting is necessary or not. If vomiting can be induced before the pill has a chance to dissolve, there’s a good chance of recovering the pill and preventing poisoning all together. Unfortunately, if you wait too long to get help, the pills will be digested and start exerting their effects. Depending on the pill, this could be deadly for a pet.

If the pet has already started to have symptoms, bring it promptly to a veterinary clinic. Always call them first so they’re prepared for the patient’s arrival.

Document, document, document! Document, in writing, the specifics of what happened. Include details such as the involved employee’s names, times of day, dates, and the name of everyone consulted on the case. If applicable, take photographs or video. For example, if a dog chewed on a potentially toxic plant, clearly photograph or take a video recording of the plant, including the portion that was chewed on. This can allow a florist or poison control expert to properly identify the plant, and potentially determine the amount and part of the plant that was ingested. The latter is important as some portions of plants (i.e. bulbs or seeds) are more toxic than others.

Documenting accidents serves two purposes. First, it demonstrates to the pet owner that the facility is serious about taking responsibility for the accident. Second, it also helps to stave off any potential false claims of injury after the accident has occurred.

Be upfront with the pet owner. Do not conceal the situation from the pet owner. Do not attempt to minimize a potentially serious case. Attempting to cover up an accident often backfires and brings devastating consequences. As we’re all aware, an upset pet owner with access to social media will make their complaints spread faster than a Labrador chasing a tennis ball. Instead, be honest and upfront. Inform the pet owner of the accident sooner versus later and keep the lines of communication open.

Compensate the pet owner when necessary. While boarding/daycare facilities often run on slim margins, it’s still prudent and professional to cover the cost of veterinary care if an accident occurred due to staff negligence or oversight. This includes covering the cost of the call to a veterinary poison control center or a consulting fee with the facility’s on-call veterinarian. Even if the accident was not due to staff negligence, consider providing the pet owner with a complimentary night of boarding and you may have won a client for life.

While accidents will happen, it’s the response to them that makes all the difference. Remember, in case of possible poisoning, know that round-the-clock help is just a phone call away at Pet Poison Helpline, 800.213.6680.

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