Would you believe? Mirthful myths in veterinary toxicology

September 10, 2019
Tina Wismer, DVM, DABVT, DABT

ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center

When it comes to old wives tales, veterinary medicine has some doozies about what household items can hurt and help pets. No one know this better than a veterinary toxicologist who works at the Animal Poison Control Center.

Old wives' tales have always been prevalent in veterinary practice. But in this internet age, rumors and misinformation can spread like wildfire, leaving pets at risk for harm by owners who only want to do what's right for them.

Often written in story form to be as believable as possible, these rumors sometimes contain precautionary advice about keeping pets safe, and they tend to be embellished over repeated tellings. Internet rumors in particular have a way of going dormant for some time and then rearing their ugly heads again months or years after the initial distribution, spreading the falsehoods far and wide.

Here are some of the humdingers I've heard.

And the universal antidote is…

Some of these supposed antidotes are actually helpful for some problems, but there simply is no universal antidote that will address every type of toxin that every dog or cat ingests.

Milk. Milk can help to dilute caustic substances (acids, alkalis) and irritants (detergents), and it can help dissolve the insoluble calcium oxalate crystals found in some plants. And the calcium in milk may also decrease the absorption of certain pharmaceuticals (bisphosphonates, tetracyclines). But that's about it.

Atropine. Atropine can be helpful in reversing the muscarinic signs (salivation, lacrimation, urination, dyspnea, drooling, emesis) from organophosphate and carbamate insecticides, but it's not going to affect other intoxications. This misconception likely arose many years ago when most insecticides were organophosphates or carbamates, compounds rarely encountered today.

Burnt toast. This myth likely arises from the use of activated charcoal to treat poisonings. Unfortunately, the black parts on burnt bread are not absorbents like activated charcoal.

Weak tea. Tea does contain tannins, which can be helpful in treatment of some intoxications (rhododendrons, azaleas), but it does nothing to treat other poisons.

Cleaning products or pet killers?

While household chemicals are obviously not great for pets (or people) to ingest, many of the specific rumors surrounding these products are based on myth, not truth.

Febreze. When Febreze first came to market in 1999, an extensive internet email rumor implicated it in the deaths of many dogs. I still see the email floating around. Febreze can cause respiratory issues in birds and allergic reactions in some dogs, but it has not been linked to any dog deaths.

Swiffer WetJet. Another internet rumor purports that “Swiffer WetJet contains a compound that is ‘one molecule away' from antifreeze and caused liver failure and death in a German shepherd dog.” The fact is that none of the WetJet's ingredients pose a risk for hepatotoxicity. Anyway, if antifreeze (or a closely related glycol) were involved, we would expect renal, not liver, damage. Oh, and any molecule is ‘one molecule away' from antifreeze.

Ultra Clorox. Per the internet, Ultra Clorox bleach should not be used in households with pets because it contains sodium hydroxide (lye), a substance that's not present in “regular” bleaches. The truth: All bleaches contain sodium hydroxide, and Ultra Clorox does not pose an additional hazard to pets when used as directed.

Paper towel tubes. This myth states that the glue used in the cardboard found in paper towel rolls and toilet paper contains enough zinc to poison an animal. This is untrue.

Food fallacies

This selection of food-related rumors is a mixed bag containing some myth, some fact. Here's a closer look.

Almonds and other nuts. The myth that almonds contain cyanide and will kill pets does have some truth behind it. Bitter almonds do contain cyanide, but we eat sweet almonds, which contain no cyanide. Bitter almond essential oil may be purchased but, because it has been processed, there is no poisoning risk.

Rumors about poisonous pistachios also abound online. There is no basis to this myth. Nuts certainly can cause GI upset, but they are not considered poisonous.

Chocolate. This particular old wives' tale states that you shouldn't give your dog chocolate, not because it is poisonous but because it will give them worms. This one may stem from the fact that dogs may vomit or have diarrhea after eating chocolate, and roundworms already present in the dog may be seen in the vomit or stool.

Ice cubes. Some believe that if you give a dog ice to cool off on a hot day, the dog will develop bloat (gastric dilatation-volvulus). Absolutely not true.

Garlic. Garlic is a natural way to get rid of fleas, or so some pet owners believe. Wanting to use “safe” flea control on pets is understandable, but owners may equate natural with safe, which is not always the case. The simple fact is that garlic is not efficacious in treating fleas. It can, however, cause hemolytic anemia and methemoglobinemia in dogs. For pets, 10 g/kg of fresh garlic (or its equivalent) may be a problem.

Miscellaneous misperceptions

And here's a final set of dire internet warnings to round out our selection of toxin rumors.

Tennis balls. The myth that tennis balls can explode fatally is, unfortunately, true. In 2000, a dog in Portland, Oregon, picked up a tennis ball during a walk and it exploded, killing the dog-the ball had been made into a bomb. Per the Portland police, tennis ball bombs are not uncommon and information on how to make them can be found on the internet. Pet owners should leave found tennis balls alone, especially if they are wrapped in electrical or duct tape. Tennis balls are also said to contain lead, which is poisonous to both pets and people. In fact, the balls themselves do not contain lead, but some inks used to print logos on the balls have tested high in lead.

Rawhide manufactured overseas. There is a bit of truth to this one, only because many years ago a batch of rawhides from Thailand was indeed contaminated with arsenic. Keep in mind, however, that rawhide, no matter the source, can be contaminated with Salmonella or other bacterial toxins.

Hostas. The theory is that since hosta plants contain saponins, and saponins are used to make soap, soap bubbles will form in the stomach of a pet that ingests the plants. That, according to the rumor, leads to bloat. While it's true that saponins are used to make soap, it's not true that soap or soap bubbles are produced in a pet's stomach if saponin-containing plants are ingested. Pets will commonly vomit after ingesting hostas.

Of course, pet owners are to be commended for any level of concern or vigilance related to protecting their pet's health. But if you arm them with the proper information, they can direct that concern into the right channels.

Dr. Tina Wismer is medical director of the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center.