I didn't particularly mind being on call February 14. After all, Valentine's Day has been a running joke in our house for years. I'm Jewish, and when it came time to settle down and raise a family, I married a Jewish guy. My husband, Max, was born in Europe, emigrating to the States with his parents when he was little, but growing up in the heart of a large community of Jewish immigrants who never completely assimilated to American culture. When he and I first began dating and Valentine's Day rolled around, I had expected some romantic token - you know, flowers, jewelry, at least a card. Max was perplexed. "But it's a Christian holiday," he exclaimed.
Longing for that heart-shaped box of Godivas (or even a Whitman Sampler), I protested loudly. "No, it's not!"
Max looked quizzical. "The Feast Day of Saint Valentine?" he replied. Touché.
Twenty years after that conversation, I had forgotten that my Sunday on call was a special occasion to some - until that first My Dog Ate Chocolate message. "Oh, yeah," I thought, dialing the phone. "Valentine's Day." The owner reported that her 15-pound pup had eaten the ears off a semi-sweet chocolate rabbit. "Rabbit?" I repeated, checking I had heard correctly. Isn't that a different Christian holiday? Whatever. A bunny it was. As soon as the owner had realized what the dog had done, she had given a dose of hydrogen peroxide and the pooch had already upchucked.
When Cupid the Cocker eats something he shouldn't, it is common practice for veterinarians to instruct dog owners to induce vomiting at home with oral hydrogen peroxide. The key words here are "dog" and "when indicated." There are many situations in which vomiting may do more harm than good. Corrosive or caustic substances like strong acids or alkalis can damage the esophagus. Petroleum products, which may not elicit a cough response, can be inhaled during vomiting, leading to aspiration pneumonia. Epileptics, animals with severe cardiac disease, or those recovering from recent surgery should probably not be made to vomit. Always check with your veterinarian.
What about sharp things like fishhooks or needles, or bulky items like large bones or corncobs? If it went down, can't it simply come back up? Well, maybe. But how much damage might it do in the process? Sharp objects can tear the esophagus. Bulky objects may get lodged halfway up. These can be extremely difficult situations to rectify. If Cupid ate something soft, like that Valentine lingerie, vomiting might work, but it's often prudent to explore other options.
Sometimes specialists can remove a foreign body with a fiberoptic endoscope. Sometimes immediate surgery is indicated. Sometimes it is reasonable to wait and see if an item can pass out the other end.
If your veterinarian does advise giving peroxide, feed Cupid a small, moist meal first. This will aid in emptying the stomach. A few slices of bread will do the trick. Use the correct dose of peroxide. I suggest one teaspoon per ten pounds body weight, never to exceed three tablespoons per patient. Be sure it is three percent peroxide. Anything stronger is too damaging. Check the expiration date. Old peroxide won't hurt but if it's gone flat...well, no fizz, no vomit. Mixed with an equal volume of milk or ice cream, Cupid may happily lap it up without protest. If he doesn't throw up in 15 minutes, you can repeat the dose once. After that, call your veterinarian again, as too much peroxide can be harmful.
Safely inducing vomiting in cats is more difficult. Felines are far more susceptible to peroxide-induced hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. On occasion, cats have even died from perforations of the stomach following peroxide administration, and personally, I do not advise using it, except in the most dire circumstances. Luckily, cats have more discriminating palates than dogs. Hey, mine won't even eat cat food half the time. But if kitty does swallow something she shouldn't, call your veterinarian. As for other pets, rodents, rabbits, birds, and horses do not throw up. Never try to induce vomiting. (Birds regurgitate, but that's different.) Ferrets and pot-bellied pigs can vomit, at least so I have read, but in any case, call your veterinarian first. What about syrup of ipecac, you ask? You're dating yourself. In the old days, parents of small children kept ipecac on hand in case of accidental home poisonings. The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer advises its use in children. (You can read more at www.aap.org)
I determined the maximum amount of chocolate the Valentine's pup might have eaten, calculated the toxic dose for his size, taking into consideration that induced emesis usually empties 40 to 60 percent of stomach contents, and that the owner saw the ears in the vomitus. "Based on these numbers, there's little danger," I said. "But if you come down, I can give him activated charcoal." Activated charcoal is a highly porous carbon residue made from burnt vegetable matter, often wood pulp. Given orally, it binds to many drugs, chemicals, and toxins in the gut, preventing them from being absorbed into the bloodstream and facilitating excretion via the feces. Effectiveness depends on the toxin involved, how quickly the charcoal is administered, and at what dose. Human preparations are available over the counter.
The owner decided to observe her pup at home but not surprisingly, I soon got another call, a Corgi who had eaten 16 pieces of Chilmark Chocolates ... enough to pose serious toxicity risk. This one came in on emergency. I induced emesis with apomorphine, gave a whopping dose of activated charcoal, and sent them on their way.
"Good thing Max never buys me that heart-shaped box of Godivas," I thought, cleaning up piles of aromatic, brown dog puke. The idea of eating chocolate had somehow lost its appeal. I washed my hands and went into the house, hoping that would be my last call. Ah. Welcome to America. A vase of Valentine roses from Max sat on the table. Sweet.