National Poison Prevention Week: How to Protect Your Pet


“While accidents can happen at any time, there are steps we can take to ensure our pets are well protected from potential toxins lurking around our homes.”

Dr. Cristine Hayes, DVM, Medical Director for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center (APCC)

The third full week of every March is National Poison Prevention Week. This year, it will occur March 20-26, 2022.

Established by Congress in 1961, its goal is to raise awareness, reduce unintentional poisonings, and promote poison prevention. Poison prevention is particularly important when it comes to our animal companions: in addition to the dangers of stray medications and household cleaners, several substances which are non-harmful to humans pose a significant threat to pets.

Each year, thousands of pet owners reach out with concerns about their pets consuming potentially poisonous substances. In roughly half of those cases, the pet has consumed a substance that is non-threatening to humans but toxic for animals.

However, armed with a little extra knowledge, and with a bit of planning ahead, pet owners can easily reduce the risk of their pets consuming something they shouldn’t.

How to Poison-Proof Your Home

“While accidents can happen at any time, there are steps we can take to ensure our pets are well protected from potential toxins lurking around our homes,” says Dr. Cristine Hayes, DVM, Medical Director for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center (APCC). “The best way to avoid an emergency situation with any toxic item is to be aware of things that can be toxic to pets and keep them out of paws’ reach at all times.”

According to data collected by the APCC, the top two most reported toxins for pets are over-the-counter medications (including vitamins and supplements) and human prescription medications. Cold and flu medicines, anti-inflammatories, anticonvulsants, and antidepressants can all be harmful to pets, and often come in notoriously small sizes that can easily go wayward into the bottom of backpacks and purses, or under nightstands and bed frames, where humans may not think to look.

“We typically recommend taking medications in the bathroom with the door closed, because if you drop a pill you will have time to search for it without your pet finding it first,” Dr. Hayes says. “Keep all medications behind a closed door, and never have single pills lying around the home or in purses, pockets, or backpacks.”

Medications aren’t the only potential toxin for pets. Household cleaners, beauty products, and pesticides—even those in childproof containers—can also present a problem for animals. And certain indoor and outdoor plants can be toxic to pets, or at the very least harmful to their gastrointestinal tract (the APCC has a database with information on over 1,000 plants). So poison-proofing your home for your pet requires a different perspective than the one most people use in their everyday lives.

“Take a few moments in your house and get down on the ground and look around to see what would be enticing to your pet,” Dr. Hayes says. “This is especially important before you welcome a new pet into your house.”

Problematic Foods for Pets

Ridding your home of obvious toxins is only one part of the process of protecting your pet. A large number of pet poisonings actually come from pets consuming substances that are toxic to them, but not toxic to humans. One of the more well-known examples of this is chocolate.

“Chocolate, along with coffee and tea, contain substances called methylxanthines, which are found in cacao seeds, the fruit of the plant used to make coffee, tea leaves, and in the nuts of an extract used in some sodas,” Dr. Hayes says. “When ingested by pets, methylxanthines can cause vomiting and diarrhea, panting, excessive thirst and urination, hyperactivity, abnormal heart rhythm, tremors, seizures, and even death in severe cases.”

Another insidious source of toxins is moldy food. Dr. Hayes notes that the type of mold that grows on some foods—in particular, on nuts, dairy products, and some grains—contains tremorgenic mycotoxins. These tremorgenic mycotoxins can cause upset stomach, severe tremors, and seizures in pets.

Some other foods also present risks to pets. Cats are notably susceptible to onions, chives, and garlic, which can cause gastrointestinal irritation and lead to red blood cell damage; dogs are also at risk, but normally only when consuming large amounts.

Dr. Hayes also notes a few foods that can be dangerous for dogs, specifically. Grapes and raisins, when consumed in large amounts, can cause stomach irritation, lethargy, and acute kidney damage. Macadamia nuts may also be toxic for dogs, causing stomach irritation, an unsteady gait, and tremors. And xylitol, an artificial sweetener found in many products (including gum, toothpaste, and candy), can cause an insulin release, which can lead to liver failure; the increase in insulin also leads to hypoglycemia in dogs.

What to Do in an Emergency

Each toxin can come with a different set of symptoms, and affect different animals in different ways. But the most common outward signs that your pet has consumed a harmful substance include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and drooling. More serious symptoms may include lethargy, depression, and seizures.

“It is best to have an emergency plan of action in the case that something happens to your pet, or you suspect they may have ingested something potentially poisonous,” says Dr. Laura Stern, DVM, Director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “It is also smart to educate yourself and those in your household on the harmful substances that should be kept away from your pets.”

Dr. Stern also recommends knowing, in advance, where the closest emergency veterinary center is in your community, in case you have an off-hours emergency. Consider asking your veterinarian to help you come up with a plan to keep your pet safe. And if you do notice any symptoms of toxicity in your pet, contact a veterinary professional immediately.

“Connect with your local veterinarian to create the best plan of action,” Dr. Stern says. “Always rely on the information from your veterinarian rather than taking matters into your own hands.”

Resources for National Poison Prevention Week

Whether you’re a veterinary professional, a veterinary student, or just an animal lover, there are resources available for you to help keep our animal companions safe and healthy.

  • ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC): The APCC is the best resource for any animal poison-related emergency. They are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
  • APCC Veterinary Resources: Specifically designed for shelter and private practice veterinary professionals, APCC has published several resources on toxicology and poison control.
Matt Zbrog (Writer)

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.