The Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning in Dogs
Will a Dog Drink Alcohol?
The simple answer is yes, a dog will drink alcohol. That does not mean they should, but sadly each year dogs are poisoned, sometimes fatally, by a person sharing their beverage with them.
While not all dogs are attracted to alcohol, some quite like to take a sip out of a glass. Some may mistake clear spirits for water, especially if it has been diluted. Drinks that contain eggs or cream are also very tempting to a dog. Irish cream and similar beverages taste good to a dog and can be a prime source of alcohol poisoning.
Offering a pet alcohol is a particularly bad idea. Not only could it encourage the dog to steal alcohol at a later date, but even a small sip can result in fatal health consequences.
While alcoholic drinks are the obvious source of poisoning, they are far from the only way dogs are made ill by alcohol. Many household products contain a form of alcohol that can harm a dog. These can include antifreeze, some types of washing liquid, rubbing alcohol, rotting fruit and certain medicines. Even more worrying is that a dog does not necessarily need to consume alcohol to be poisoned. In 1984, there was a report of ethanol poisoning in a litter of six-week-old puppies who had been shampooed with an alcohol-based dishwashing detergent.
Types of Alcohol
There are three key types of alcohol poisoning
- Isopropanol: twice as toxic as ethanol and found in some flea treatments
- Methanol: found in antifreeze
- Ethanol: commonest cause of poisoning
Understanding the causes and symptoms of alcohol poisoning could save your dog's life, but just as important is knowing how to prevent the situation occurring in the first place.
Isopropanol (sometimes Isopropyl) is not a type of alcohol you drink, however, it is a common ingredient in household disinfectants, in antiseptics, hand sanitisers and detergents. It is also found in some spray on flea treatments, along with rubbing alcohol.
Isopropanol can be absorbed through the skin and is very toxic. It can cause skin irritation to both pets and humans, but when enough is absorbed (either by ingestion, inhalation or through the skin) then it results in poisoning which must be urgently treated. Isopropanol is also highly flammable.
Rubbing alcohol, that contains isopropanol, is sometimes suggested as a home remedy for treating fleas. It is easy to poison a dog this way, as the isopropanol is readily absorbed through the skin. Even worse, if the dog consumes any of the rubbing alcohol they can become fatally ill within thirty minutes.
Some commercial flea and tick sprays also contain isopropanol. While a light spritz with these sprays should not be harmful, over-spraying, or using too often can result in poisoning. Also, if the fur is left damp and your dog licks itself, then it will ingest isopropanol with potentially hazardous effects. A last thing to remember is that these products are flammable, so pets treated with them should not be exposed to naked flames until they are completely dry.
Methanol is another form of alcohol that is highly toxic. The commonest use for it in household products is as an antifreeze in screen wash for cars. Very little methanol is required to poison a pet, as little as 3ml could be enough to seriously harm a small dog. Unfortunately, a lot of antifreeze products have a sweet taste which is attractive to animals.
While it is relatively simple to keep containers of antifreeze away from pets, it is important to bear in mind that it can also leak from cars and form puddles which are then lapped up by dogs or cats. Sadly, antifreeze poisoning is often fatal and those pets that survive may be at a higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease. If you think your pet has consumed antifreeze, get them to a vet immediately. The sooner they are treated, the better the chances of them surviving.
On a brighter note, some manufacturers are changing the formulas of their antifreeze to remove the methanol or are adding products that give it a bitter taste to discourage animals from drinking it.
Ethanol is also called drinking alcohol. Unlike isopropanol and methanol, which should not be consumed by people, ethanol is the principal ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Ethanol is produced naturally through fermentation and as a result can be found in rotting fruit and fruit juice. The fermentation process is caused by yeast reacting to sugars, and this is why unbaked bread dough can contain ethanol. Ethanol poisoning can occur in dogs that consume uncooked bread.
Ethanol is also found in antiseptics and hand sanitisers. In some countries, it is used as a fuel for cars. It may also be found in marker pens, mouthwash, perfume and deodorants. In fact, ethanol is virtually unavoidable as it is found in so many products and items of food. Usually, the amount in these products is so low that it does no harm, but over-consumption can lead to poisoning, this is especially true if a dog consumes alcoholic drinks or a product such as mouthwash.
Though not as toxic as methanol or isopropanol, any dog that has consumed ethanol should be treated by a veterinarian at once, even if not showing symptoms.
Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning in Dogs
The effects of alcohol poisoning will usually begin to show within 30 to 60 minutes, though it can take up to two hours. The alcohol first affects the dog's brain, then the respiratory system, before finally compromising the heart.
One of the first signs can often be the dog hiding away or seeming lethargic, or possibly staggering about. These are mistaken by some for the dog being drunk (which it is) or having a hangover, however, they are really signs that a dog is beginning to suffer a toxic reaction that might easily result in death.
Aside from staggering or appearing disorientated, a dog may show the following symptoms:
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Excessive drooling
- Lost of body control (collapse, stumbling into things, unable to get up once down)
- Changes in behavior—excitement followed by depression
- Heavy panting, or struggling to breath
- Decreased or irregular heart rate
- Loss of consciousness and seizures
A dog suspected of alcohol poisoning should be taken to a vet immediately. Home treatment is not advisable as your dog's system will need to be supported by appropriate medications. The sooner a dog is treated, the more likely it is to recover, therefore it is vital you act promptly to a suspected alcohol poisoning case.
Alcohol poisoning proves fatal when either the respiratory system stops functioning (dog stops breathing) or the body temperature or blood sugar falls too low, or too much acid builds up in the body as a consequence of the intoxication. Dogs can also choke to death or contract pneumonia if they inhale their own vomit.
Treatments for Alcohol Poisoning
Any dog that is believed to have consumed alcohol and is showing the symptoms listed above should be treated promptly by a vet to limit the damage done to their body. Also, dogs that drink products containing either isopropanol or methanol, need immediate treatment as these types of alcohol are highly toxic even in small amounts.
Treatment begins by stabilising the dog. If the alcohol was consumed within less than an hour of arrival at the vet, then vomiting may be induced to try to remove any undigested alcohol from the dog's stomach.
The dog will be kept warm to prevent a deadly drop in body temperature and will be helped to breathe freely. An intravenous drip with electrolytes will help to re-hydrate the dog and encourage his kidneys to work and flush out the toxins. Anti-nausea and seizure medications may also be given to help control your pet's symptoms.
In severe cases, a tube may be put down the dog's throat to keep their airways open and enable them to breathe. It may also be necessary to do cardiac therapy if the dog suffers a heart attack.
In many dogs, prompt treatment should start to alleviate the symptoms within 8 to 12 hours, though some may need longer. Once a dog has been stabilised and the alcohol has been flushed from their system, they will be sent home to recuperate. They will need lots of rest and to be kept warm and quiet. The vet may wish you to bring your pet back for further tests to ensure their body has fully recovered.
The bottom line is that dogs should never touch alcohol and even a small amount can have fatal consequences. Prevention is the key and here are some ideas on how to protect your dog:
- don't leave alcoholic drinks on the floor and never leave them out overnight
- don't put clear spirits in water jugs or bottles, where they may be accidentally mistaken for plain water
- inform guests that under no circumstances should your dog/s be allowed to sip drinks or have alcohol poured in their water bowl
- keep antifreeze and other household products that contain alcohol in secure cupboards or on high shelves a dog cannot reach
- leaks or spillages should be cleaned up immediately and the area they happened in well-rinsed to remove traces
- be aware that rotting fruit can cause alcohol poisoning, make sure bins are secure, fence off compost heaps and collect fallen fruit from garden trees before it can begin to decompose
- during holidays, try to be extra vigilant and, if necessary, remove your dog to a safe area where they cannot access unattended drinks
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2020 Sophie Jackson