By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
Vet at Idaho Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance
Winter is in full swing and thermostats are being turned up in order to keep everyone warm. The winter season can be a great time to get cozy with the family, but there are some winter pet health dangers that should be considered in order to keep your pets safe this year. Exposure to the cold is an easy danger to recognize, but some are less obvious. One of the most lethal dangers to pets that veterinarians see in the wintertime is antifreeze toxicity. Since emergency treatment isn’t always rewarding, prevention is the key. Because accidents like these abound in the winter months, it’s a good idea to be prepared with pet health insurance.
Antifreeze is used to keep your car running smoothly in the wintertime. It contains ethyl glycol, which has a very low freezing point, meaning at normal winter temperatures it won’t freeze. The problem is that antifreeze tastes sweet, so when animals are exposed to it, they are likely to drink it. The amount needed to harm an animal is also very little, especially in cats. The average ten pound cat could die with as little as one teaspoon of antifreeze ingestion, and a 20 pound dog could suffer severe consequences and possibly death after drinking as little as 3.5 tablespoons.
Once in the body, ethylene glycol is metabolized into formic or oxalic acid. Oxalic acid can combine with normal amounts of calcium in the bloodstream, causing calcium oxalate crystals. These crystals are large and hard, and get stuck in the small tubules of the kidneys, blocking them and causing acute kidney failure. In effect, the kidneys crystallize, which is an impossible process to reverse. Treatment is aimed at preventing the ethylene glycol from forming oxalic acid, and therefore preventing calcium oxalate crystals from forming in the first place. Once the crystals are there, damage has been done. Therefore, if you see you pet come across antifreeze, or know they were exposed to it, don’t wait until they act sick to seek veterinary care, it might be too late. Having dog and cat insurance is a good way to defray costs around the holidays when your normal vet may be closed and sometimes-costly emergency clinics are your only option.
Pets that have ingested antifreeze will often act ‘drunk.’ Ethylene glycol is an alcohol and works on the brain in a similar manner to cause stumbling, incoordination and stupor. This can happen within 1 to 12 hours after ingestion. As the kidneys stop doing their job, pets will often become very thirsty and will drink excessive amounts of water. After 12 to 24 hours the pet will become significantly more sick as the kidneys begin to fail, severe electrolyte imbalance will cause cardiac and respiratory signs, including fast breathing and a fast, weak heartbeat. By 2 to 3 days after ingestion, the pet is usually gravely ill, and might seizure and have severe vomiting episodes.
If you suspect your pet has ingested anti-freeze, you veterinarian will likely want to perform a blood chemistry, a blood gas profile and a urinalysis. These tests can become quite costly, which is why cat and dog insurance can help owners afford the best care without worrying about finances. The smaller calcium oxalate crystals forming in the kidneys can be flushed into the urine and visualized under a microscope. The presence of a certain form of these classically shaped urine crystals is a strong indicator of exposure to ethylene glycol. There is a blood test that will look specifically for the presence of ethylene glycol in the blood, but not all veterinary clinics have access to this test.
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Some commercial antifreeze solutions have added sodium fluorescein dye to help detect leaks in the car’s coolant system. The dye fluoresces under a black light and may be excreted in the urine for up to 6 hours, and may be present on the paws, fur or mouth.
Successful treatment must begin before the ethylene glycol is metabolized into the toxic oxalic acid. Patients typically require intensive hospitalization and aggressive treatment. Veterinary care can be expensive, and having pet insurance can be a crucial asset to allowing your pet the emergency care they need. Animals that start treatment 8 to 12 hours after ingestion typically have a poor to grave prognosis.
Some preventative measures you can take to help keep your pet from exposure to this deadly toxin include:
1.) Not allowing your pet access to the garage or other places where antifreeze is used or stored. Store antifreeze with appropriately marked containers.
2.) Immediately clean up any antifreeze spills appropriately and check your car regularly for leaks.
3.) Use antifreeze solutions that have an additive to make it taste less appealing to pets.
4.) Don’t allow your pets outside unsupervised.
Antifreeze toxicity is a devastating illness, but with some foresight and common sense it can be prevented. Always consider pet insurance as a way to ensure your pet can receive the care they need in a time of crisis. Have a safe and happy holiday season!