Benji and the unlucky penny

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Benji's X-ray shows some remaining pocket change he ingested.
By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

Benji is a sweet, spunky little 3-year-old mixed breed dog weighing just 12 pounds. He really does look like Benji from the old TV movies! He was presented to me for an unusual problem that ended up being very serious.

Unbeknownst to his owners, Benji ate about thirty one cents in change; a nickel, a penny and a quarter. Who knows why he thought it was a tasty treat, but this turned out to be a big pet health problem.

While nickels and quarters are less toxic to dogs, pennies can cause serious illness. We think of pennies being made from copper, but in fact, the composition of the penny has changed many times since the 1700’s. Traditionally pennies were made from copper, but since 1983, all pennies have been made of 97% zinc with a copper coating, to help with manufacturing costs. Zinc is extremely toxic to dogs and can cause a condition called hemolytic anemia, an illness that causes the body to destroy its own red blood cells.

When the penny sits in the acidic stomach, the zinc is released from the penny and absorbed into the blood stream. It is also irritating to the GI tract and can cause vomiting and diarrhea within hours of ingestion. The most serious side effect is the hemolytic anemia that can occur after 24 to 48 hours in the stomach. The exact mechanism of red blood cell destruction is unclear, but the zinc makes the body burst the red blood cells and can dramatically reduce their numbers.

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When Benji came to me he had already thrown up the penny and a nickel, but the damage was done. Normally a dog’s blood is made up of about 50% red blood cells. Benji came to me with only 14% red blood cells. When the cell numbers are this low it is hard for the blood to deliver oxygen to the body. Benji received a blood transfusion and improved to 20% red blood cells and felt much better. Radiographs revealed he still had a quarter in his stomach, but he was too sick for surgery to remove it.

If the penny stays in the stomach long enough, the zinc can also start to cause organ failure. The most common organs to be affected are the kidneys. A blood panel can reveal dangerously high renal (kidney) values and this was the case for Benji. In cases of acute renal failure, time and IV fluids can help the kidney to regain some function. Benji received IV fluids and medication. Over several days he slowly improved, gaining strength. After 24 hours in my care he threw up again, but this time the quarter came up too! The owners had never been so excited about their dog throwing up; things were starting to look up for Benji. It looked like he wouldn’t need surgery after all!

In addition to organ failure and low red blood cell numbers, zinc can also cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and even cardiac arrest. Other sources of dangerous zinc include some older toys, nails and hardware, staples, zippers and jewelry, and some human creams, such as sunblock, calamine lotion and Desitin.

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Overall Benji was lucky, even though his penny wasn’t! He ended up staying in the hospital with intensive care for 10 days before he finally went home to his grateful owners. The whole ordeal ended up costing Benji’s owner’s around $2,100– had they had a pet insurance policy with Pets Best Insurance for Benji, they could have only had to pay $400 out-of-pocket if they had selected a policy with a $100 deductible.

If your dog eats something it shouldn’t, it is important to contact your veterinarian to determine how serious it is.

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