What should I do if my dog eats something he shouldn’t? And how would I know?
It is impossible to keep your eyes on your dog 24/7. The things your pup can get into when your back is turned is as endless as my 8-year-old niece’s imagination. But keep in mind that each situation and each dog is different.
Since each dog and each situation is so different how do we classify that something he shouldn’t have eaten? The list of possibilities is endless. We are talking foreign objects ingested, toxic plants, dead animals- you name it. Some dogs will eat anything and everything.
For our purposes we are going to stick to the things your dog might eat while you are exploring the outdoors. We will not be covering household objects at this time.
Things your dog should not eat that could be potentially harmful while in the wilderness include but are most certainly not limited to: dead animals, live animals including insects, toxic plants, and anything that could act as a foreign object and cause an obstruction.
For simplicity’s sake we are going to break this topic in two categories which is toxicity via ingestion vs an object that could cause a gastrointestinal obstruction. You are going to use these two categories to aid you in your problem solving- but first I want to review your dog’s history (personality, behaviors, characteristics etc.) to help you identify risk and increase awareness.
This week we will be covering symptoms, next week will be treatment. This subject can get lengthy and I want to be as thorough as possible!
So, the question we are addressing today is- how do you know your dog ate something he shouldn’t have? I am going to state the obvious here and say that our dogs cannot speak to us. So how do we work around this? We are going to show you how with this blog post. Sometimes in veterinary medicine we have to make educated guesses. And that is just the imperfect and honest truth. As a dog owner, sometimes you are going to need make educated guesses. Let me walk you through a system on how to do this in a way where you are more likely to have success.
First, Let’s talk about history … And then we will cover symptoms in depth.
PART ONE: History
Consider your dog’s personality and his situation
(history is a term we use in medicine to describe the patient signalment (breed, age, sex, diet, current meds, previous medical history, current symptoms etc.)
You know your dog and his or her personality the best. I have spoken endlessly about knowing your dog and knowing what is normal for him and what is not. So essentially know your dog and take the proper precautions. If you have a chow hound of a beagle who will literally eat down the house given the opportunity… maybe, consider keeping him on a leash while hiking so you have more control if he picks up something he shouldn’t.
Another important thing to consider here is that some dogs are more inclined to eat something they shouldn’t when there is competition. A dog hiking solo with his owner is less inclined to scarf down something he shouldn’t vs those of you who hike with multiple dogs. When a pup is smelling an object that is interesting and he thinks it could potentially be tasty, he also could be fearful that his fellow hiking buddy will come by and swipe it from him. This might just result in him inhaling it before you get a chance to grab it out of his mouth. Also, the same rings true if you have an alpha male or female dog- these guys are usually the ones who get themselves into trouble for competition’s sake by eating something they shouldn’t– even if it less than desirable.
Also consider that some dogs are incredibly picky and sensitive to the way things taste. So, if something smells noxious or unappetizing, they won’t consume it. These dogs are far less likely to consume a toxic substance, plant, animal, etc. and can probably be considered lower risk.
So ultimately some dogs are less inclined to eat something they shouldn’t. And some are just not very food motivated.
From here I want to Segway into actionable tips- which is awareness and research. By now you should have made a mental note on your dog’s personality and the type of situations he is typically in. So, what now?
The common theme behind any first aid education is awareness- being aware of your surroundings. Some plants like to bloom at certain times of the year. Some areas of the country have certain reptiles that can be toxic if consumed. This is highly variable depending on geography and the time of year. Therefore, doing your research ahead of time is crucial. When hiking around home base you probably have a pretty good idea of what should be avoided and who you need to look out for. However, when traveling it is always a good idea to do some research, plan ahead, and be aware- so you are well versed on wildlife and plant life that can be toxic to your dog in the wilderness.
When exploring unchartered territory, it might be helpful to have pictures saved on your phone of the toxic plants known to the area, and the symptoms listed if your pup was to ingest them.
And finally, if you are lucky enough to see your dog consume the plant- then consider this a fortunate occurrence. This is where treatment comes in which we will cover next week.
Symptoms your dog ate something he shouldn’t. Toxicity vs foreign object
PART 2a: Toxic plant, animal, substance
When something is toxic or “noxious” they generally effect one or multiple systems of your dog’s body. Symptoms, while scary, can be helpful in figuring out what is going on with your dog and what he ate. There is going to be a lot of variability ranging from mild to severe- this will depend on the “toxic dose” of the substance, the amount consumed, the size of the dog, and previous medical history or problems.
I am going to give a couple of quick examples; however, this should not be considered an all-inclusive or comprehensive list by any means. We would be here all day.
Coming back to awareness- figuring out what is going on with your dog can simply be broken down into two parts-
- Recognizing something is wrong
- Identifying the culprit
So, a broad and general list of symptoms or signs that your dog ate something he shouldn’t include:
Gagging, coughing, pawing at the mouth, not eating, depressed, swelling around the muzzle/face/throat, ulcers in the mouth, coughing blood, change in breathing patterns, difficulty breathing, not breathing, choking, vomiting, vomiting blood, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, painful abdomen, tremors, muscle cramping/stiffness, seizures, collapse (abruptly falling over), shock, brick red gums, pale gums, increased or decreased capillary refill time, coma, paralysis, stupor, ataxia (unsteady- seems “drunk”), death.
So, this list clues you into something is wrong… obviously.
Next- breaking this huge list of symptoms down into systems can help identify what is going on and maybe even clue you into what was consumed- if you know the region you are in and the wildlife/plant life.
Contact irritant of the mucous membranes/ mucosal surface (think mouth and esophagus): pawing at mouth, coughing, coughing blood, inappetence, depressed, swelling around the muzzle and mouth
Nervous system: Seizures, stupor, coma, ataxia, paralysis, inability to breath
Respiratory system: coughing, coughing blood, difficulty breathing, inability to breath, shallow breathing, increased or decreased respiration rate, blue/grey mucous membranes
Cardiovascular system: increased or decreased heartrate, weak pulses, collapse, coughing, weak pulses, excessively strong pulses, changes in capillary refill time
Circulatory system: uncontrolled bleeding, bruising, pale gums, brick red gums, excessive bleeding, increased or decreased capillary refill time, collapse, weakness, weak pulses, shock
Gastrointestinal system: inappetence, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools or vomit, depression, weakness, painful abdomen
So, this is a list of symptoms broken down by system. Once again, this is not all inclusive.
If you know certain plants or animals have a certain toxic substance that effect certain systems of your dog’s body, you can piece them together to figure out what is going, on-and this gives you the best chance to intervene immediately or to realize how critical the situation is, so you can rush him to a vet.
PART 2b: Foreign object
Ingestion of an object, animal, or plant matter that could cause an obstruction
This matter is going to be a bit more simplistic for our purposes since in theory and for simplicity’s sake we are going to view this like there is only one system involved. And that is the gastrointestinal system. Now we are talking about an actual, structural obstruction. Examples of this include different parts of carnage, your hiking gear (lol I hope not!) or any plant matter that could cause a potential obstruction.
A foreign object can be lodged virtually anywhere within the GI tract- from the roof of the mouth, in between teeth, to the esophagus, the stomach, or the small intestines. Our general rule of thumb as veterinarians is “if it makes it to the colon it will pass” so typically we do not surgically remove foreign bodies from the colon. This needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis, however.
So, symptoms of a foreign object obstruction can include:
Upper GI -choke or foreign object lodged in esophagus: cough, pawing at mouth, seemingly panicked, restless, coughing blood, struggling to breath, blue/grey gums collapse
Lower GI – foreign object in stomach/small intestines: inappetence, lethargy, vomiting, regurgitation- inability to keep water and or food down, diarrhea, fever, not passing any stool, bloody stool, bloody vomit, fever, depression, painful abdomen
This essentially sums up our GI foreign bodies when your dog is on the trail and got into something he shouldn’t have.
We will discuss treatment next week, because once again this will be highly variable depending on the situation and what is consumed.
Take a moment to think about this process I have outlined for you. Think about how different cases of dietary indiscretion- (fancy word for “my dog ate something he shouldn’t have”) will affect different systems of your dog’s body. Think about the timing of the symptoms will vary depending on what system is affected, and how things unfold and develop after the exposure to the toxicity or the foreign object. This method of problem solving helps you to figure out what is going on when our animals can’t speak to us. Thinking critically, being aware, and constantly educating yourself can help you know when you can treat conservatively and when you need to high tail it to the vet. The unknown is the difficult part and it can cause stress and worry- using the most powerful tool you have- (your brain) you can solve most mysteries when you are wondering “what the heck my dog get into now?”
Until next time, get out and explore more with your pup.
Libbie Fort, DVM