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Vetspeak: Antifreeze is an often fatal poison for cats and dogs

By Alison Laurie-Chalmers

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Antifreeze poisoning is frequently fatal for both cats and dogs.
Antifreeze poisoning is frequently fatal for both cats and dogs.

Worryingly, many commercial antifreeze mixes still do contain ethylene glycol. This is one of the most dangerous household poisons, and its ingestion is frequently fatal in both cats and dogs.

Cats and young puppies are at a particularly high risk.

Sadly, antifreeze poisoning it still encountered over the colder, winter months. Please do be aware of this potentially fatal poison, particularly so if yourself, or your neighbours’ own cats, who are more likely to roam.

Ethylene glycol is apparently sweet tasting, which means that pets are much more likely to have a fatal exposure. It has the highest fatality rate of all known veterinary poisons.

Toxicity is directly related to the ingestion of the ethylene glycol, which is the principal component (95 per cent) of most antifreeze solutions.

Antifreeze is unusually recognisable by its bright green colouring. Even very small amounts can be fatally toxic to body organs, including the brain, kidneys, and liver.

Pets generally encounter antifreeze when it leaks from a car’s engine onto the ground, when it is spilled onto the ground while being added to a car’s engine, if there are spillages directly from the container or when the refill container is left uncapped.

Symptoms of poisoning are dependent on the amount of ethylene glycol ingested. The symptoms and signs of poisoning are caused by the ethylene glycol itself and the toxic metabolites produced by the body’s chemical processes as it breaks the ethylene glycol down. These symptoms of organ poisoning sadly are frequently fatal.

The poisoning effect has several stages. About 30 minutes after ingesting the poison ethylene glycol starts to alter brain function. Its effects are similar to ingesting alcohol, causing an altered mental state, often with initial excitement followed by depression, weakness, stupor or a coma. There usually is wobbliness and difficulty in balancing, head tremors, followed by a loss of reflexes. Nausea and vomiting follow, often with increased urination.

The real concerns with ethylene glycol is that it is broken down in the body into glycolaldehyde, which is extremely toxic to kidney tissues. Initially, the amount of urine production increases, but then it starts to decrease sharply.

This decreased urination is often the first sign that serious, and usually permanent, kidney damage has occurred. In dogs, signs of kidney damage usually start about 36-72 hours after ingestion. Cats are more rapidly affected, with kidney symptoms starting at about 12-24 hours after poisoning.

Blood and urine sample tests will show abnormalities consistent with ethylene glycol toxicity, such as kidney damage and certain crystals in the urine.

The less urine the patient can make, the worse the prognosis for the case. Cats and puppies usually suffer worse than adult dogs. Any animal that shows little or no urine production are sadly unlikely to recover, even with intensive treatments.

Ethylene glycol toxin is rapidly absorbed through the stomach wall. The main aim of any attempted treatments is to slow down the conversion of ethylene glycol into the more toxic glycolaldehyde.

Sadly, once kidney failure is noted, most affected patients will die.

So, if you have any products in your home or garage containing ethylene glycol such as antifreeze, then please make sure you store them safely away.

If you think your pet may have ingested anything containing antifreeze, contact your vet immediately.

Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant at Crown Vets

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