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The dangers of antifreeze toxicity
3 December 2017
With the temperatures dropping, it is worth bearing in mind some of the seasonal hazards posed to our dogs and cats. For example, readily available and widely used antifreeze fluids (such as those used in car radiators, screen wash and brake fluid) can rapidly become fatal if ingested.
Antifreeze contains a substance called ethylene glycol. This is a chemical which is not poisonous in itself but is metabolised by the body into toxic components by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. The antifreeze liquid is attractive to cats and dogs due to its sweet taste; exposure often occurs when they lick up spilled liquid from garage/shed floors, or lick it off contaminated fur and paws.
The clinical signs that are seen following ingestion develop rapidly. Initial onset of signs can be expected anywhere from around 30 minutes to about 12 hours after exposure. The first signs that tend to appear are associated with the central nervous system and may include wobbliness, weakness, vomiting or even tremors/seizures. Later, signs progress to difficulty breathing and a rapid heart rate. Ultimately the toxins can cause kidney failure and death.
Successful treatment of ethylene glycol toxicity is sometimes possible, but needs to be initiated as soon as possible after exposure. The prognosis for cats and dogs that have been poisoned is better when cases present early although the outcome is still uncertain. Sadly animals that are in renal failure by the time of presentation very rarely survive. If patients are seen very soon after ingestion we will often make them sick to try and limit their exposure to the chemicals. Then treatment involves providing an infusion of alcohol intravenously. This works as the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase will preferentially metabolise the alcohol instead of the ethylene glycol in the antifreeze, preventing it from being broken down into its toxic compounds. Supportive care and monitoring of kidney values on blood tests is also essential.
What should you do?
- Keep antifreeze well out of reach, ideally locked away.
- If any is spilt on the floor at home, ensure you shut your pets out of the area and clear it up immediately – they will be attracted to the sweet taste.
- If cats or dogs get antifreeze on their feet or fur, rinse it off thoroughly with lots of clean water.
- If you suspect that your cat or dog may have ingested antifreeze contact a vet immediately.
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