Summer 2002. West Tisbury playground. Hanging out with my friend AnneMarie and our children. The two-year-olds had toddled across the yard, their four-year-old siblings trailing behind. We mothers sat and talked, as mothers do, watching from our seats at the picnic table. My four-year-old trotted back. “Sydney ate berries,” she reported.
Berries? AnneMarie and I flew across the playground, praying for raspberries. Instead we found bittersweet and deadly nightshade in the hedge. “Did you eat those?” I asked my toddler urgently. She gazed at me, speechless. I turned to the four-year-olds. “Did she eat those?” I demanded.
“I think so,” said one uncertainly. The other nodded slightly.
Grabbing a sample of each plant, I scooped up my kids and headed for the hospital, where they gave my little one medicine to make her vomit.
Decontamination – the act of making safe by eliminating poisonous or otherwise hazardous substances. Although poisoning by ingestion is the most common and generally most serious scenario, exposure to harmful substances can also occur via skin, eyes, even lungs. Let’s discuss decontamination, starting with exposure via the skin.
Imagine something nasty has splashed on your cat, Nightshade. It’s on her fur or paws. Paint. Pesticides. Oil. Insecticides. Glue. Some chemicals cause burns or severe irritation. Others absorb through the skin into the system. Others become dangerous primarily if ingested, for instance when she grooms.
First, call your veterinarian to be sure the substance in question doesn’t warrant medical attention. Then wipe off as much as possible. Sticky things like glue or paint may need to be shaved off, along with the affected fur. Use clippers, not scissors. Now, if you feel able, it’s bath time. Dawn dishwashing liquid is especially good for removing oily substances. Follow by flushing the skin with copious amounts of warm water. Towel dry and keep her warm until she is fully fluffy again. Many cats don’t take kindly to the tub, so call your vet for help if Nightie is feisty.
Whatever you do, don’t do more harm than good. In veterinary school I saw a heartbreaking case. An owner panicked when he found maggots on his Old English Sheep Dog. He scrubbed the dog vigorously with steel wool and Comet, then doused her with Lysol and bleach. The dog presented on emergency covered with abrasions and chemical burns caused by the owner, including corneal damage to both eyes. If your dog, Bittersweet, gets something potentially hazardous in his eyes, flush gently using saline eye wash or warm tap water. If his eyes look red, inflamed, or cloudy, if he is squinting or pawing at his face, see your veterinarian promptly.
For ingestion of hazardous substances, always call Animal Poison Control or your veterinarian immediately. The key word here is immediately. If Bittersweet downed something deadly, the sooner we treat, the better. But we need to treat correctly. This does not always mean inducing vomiting. We advise against making Bittersweet barf when the ingested substance is something like lye, bleach, or kerosene. These can do additional harm coming back up and it is often better to pursue other methods of treatment. It is also pointless to induce vomiting if Bittersweet ate the hazardous substance so long ago that it is no longer in his stomach.
The times to make him upchuck include when we know the toxin to have been eaten within the last hour, when we are not sure when it was eaten but we know it’s a very dangerous substance if left in the system, and when the substance is something that tends to linger in the stomach a long time — like chocolate or xylitol gum. Never induce vomiting if he is seizuring, unconscious, or in any state in which he might have trouble throwing up normally. We don’t want him to aspirate stomach contents into his lungs. This can be more deadly than the toxin.
So you’ve checked with a veterinarian and been told to try home decontamination for your dog. Feed Bittersweet some bread or something soft and bulky to help transport up whatever is in his stomach. Then give the correct dose of hydrogen peroxide orally. Mixed in milk, most dogs will drink it readily. Peroxide works by irritating the stomach, so don’t overdo it. The dose is one teaspoon per ten pounds body weight, with a maximum of three tablespoons. Wait 15 minutes. If he doesn’t barf, you can repeat the peroxide one time, but never give more than three tablespoons total to any dog.
Never give peroxide to cats. They have a much higher risk of getting severe gastritis from peroxide which can lead to stomach perforation and death. I repeat: Never give peroxide to cats.
Your veterinarian may advise bringing your dog in so vomiting can be induced with a drug called apomorphine, which can be given by injection, or by putting a little bit it in the corner of his eye, where it will absorb quickly through the membranes. Apomorphine works on the brain, telling Bittersweet to barf, without irritating his stomach. It is more reliable and does a better job of emptying the stomach than peroxide, but, like peroxide, it cannot be used in cats.
Making cats vomit is a tricky proposition. Luckily, they tend to be more discriminating than dogs in what they choose to swallow.
Your veterinarian may then give your pet activated charcoal orally. Although rarely used with people anymore, this is still considered another mainstay for decontamination in dogs, binding directly to the toxin in the gastrointestinal tract, limiting further absorption of the toxin. It is not useful with every hazardous substance, so your veterinarian will make that decision.
My two-year-old spent an hour heaving in the emergency room, never bringing up any berries, but showing no ill effects other than the physician-induced vomiting. I suspect she didn’t really eat any berries, that the older kids were either mischievous or mistaken. But after that, I was always careful to check the local flora before letting little ones wander.