Pest-killing products pose a bigger problem to pets than weedkillers
Many pet owners worry about the impact of gardening practices on their pets: in particular, the risk of exposure to poisons used to control weeds and pests. The potential risks of these products are obvious, but in reality, how significant is the danger?
Ten thousand dogs are poisoned every year in UK homes
The Veterinary Poisons Information Service is the reference and advisory source used most commonly by vets in practice. The service keeps records of all enquiries about poisoning cases, and these are published annually. In 2015, VPIS was consulted about poisoning cases in nearly 10,000 dogs, over 1,500 cats and over 100 rabbits. The VPIS annual report carries more details of the breakdown of these cases. The take-home message for me is that their findings tally closely to what I see as a vet in practice: the incidence of pets being poisoned by weedkillers is low, while pest-killing products pose a far greater problem.
Weedkillers are less poisonous to pets than you'd think
Why are problems not seen more commonly with weedkillers? First, they are not generally appealing to pets, and second, when they're used as instructed, the toxicity to pets is low. The exception to this rule used to be paraquat, a deadly poison which has been banned in the UK for nearly a decade.
The main issue with modern herbicides is gastroenteritis associated with direct irritation to the digestive tract. This can be seen if weedkiller is consumed directly or if plants are eaten immediately after being sprayed. When gardeners follow the safety instructions on the side of the weedkiller containers (e.g. diluting the product, and keeping pets away until it's dry), this is unlikely to happen. And even when pets are affected, simple treatment, involving a brief fast followed by a bland diet, is often all that's needed.
The biggest threat is poisons used to control rats and slugs
In contrast, the poisons used to control pests (such as rodents and slugs) often have a dangerous combination of being highly toxic to pets as well as being palatable, so that animals will voluntarily consume them if they get a chance. If piles of rat poison or slug bait are left in areas that dogs can access, there's a high chance that they'll eat a toxic dose. While this can be prevented by using safety devices (such as tubes or traps) to keep such poisons out of dogs' reach, accidents do happen. VPIS dealt with over 700 cases of rat bait poisoning in dogs in 2015. Cats are far less commonly affected because they tend to be finicky eaters, less likely than dogs to eat a dangerous dose of toxic agent. I do, however, see regular cases of cats being poisoned by slug bait, so caution is still needed.
Urgent veterinary treatment saves pets' lives
Rapid veterinary intervention is critically important in all cases of poisoning. The best way to deal with most poisons is prompt emptying of the stomach by giving an injectable drug which causes the animal to vomit. This has to be done within an hour or so, or the poison will have passed on from the stomach to the intestines, from where it's absorbed into the bloodstream. At that point, other intensive treatments are needed, including Vitamin K as an antidote to anti-coagulant poisons. This type of intensive treatment is costly and it isn't always successful.
While caution is needed, it's important not to exaggerate the risk: when VPIS followed up the reported cases in 2015, only three dogs were found to have died after rat bait consumption with three further dogs dying after eating slug bait. Many other deaths are likely to have happened that were not reported to VPIS, but on the grand scale, this is not something for most owners to worry about unduly.
How to prevent pets from being poisoned
Simple advice is sufficient to ensure the safety of pets:
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