Eating light bulbs

What to do when your dog tries an old frat-house trick.


The dog wasn’t even on-Island, but I have known the owner since she was a little girl, and she wanted my advice. “He ate one of those spiral light bulbs,” she told me over the phone. Dogs: Gotta love ’em. I’ve seen them eat all kinds of inedible objects. Light bulbs, Christmas ornaments, batteries, disposable razors. I’ve had several chow down on old-style incandescent light bulbs, but this was the first time I had a patient eat one of the newer energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs).

My first concern was the mechanical danger from ingested glass. “You could go see a veterinarian for an x-ray,” I suggested. The glass should show up on a radiograph, giving us an idea of how much her dog had actually swallowed and how large the pieces were. The biggest danger was the risk of a sharp edge perforating his gastrointestinal tract, a potentially fatal complication. The pup in question was a Bernese mountain dog. If you don’t know the breed, they are similar to St. Bernards or Great Pyrenees — really big dogs. I have seen dogs this size pass many odd things without difficulty, and this was an observant, conscientious owner. As long as she watched him closely, I was comfortable having her try home treatment.

“Feed him three or four slices of squishy white bread right away,” I advised. “Follow that with a heaping spoonful of cat hairball medication, like Laxatone or Felimalt. Repeat this process several times a day for the next two days.” I have had great success using this old-fashioned method of helping dogs pass foreign bodies. The goal is to create a kind of bread ball in the stomach, embedding the foreign body in the wad of dough, then using hairball medication to lubricate the whole mass and ease it down and out.

I used to tell people to buy Wonder Bread for this purpose, remembering the fluffy loaves of my childhood in the white wrapper, gaily decorated with bright red, blue, and yellow circles. But I am dating myself. Most younger clients have no idea what I am talking about. Use any brand of bread that is soft and malleable. Some veterinarians advise feeding high-fiber food, like cooked white rice, but I prefer the bread. I have read about another method — feeding cotton balls. The theory is the same. Encase the object in the cotton, thus protecting the gut as it passes. I have never tried this. Should you read this column and decide to experiment next time your Labrador downs a chicken bone, please be advised we are talking about a small handful of cotton balls. Not tampons! I repeat: Not tampons! Tampons expand when moistened, and will actually create intestinal obstructions when ingested. Tampons have strings, which can also wreak havoc in the gut. Do me a favor and call your veterinarian, or at very least, stick to Wonder Bread.

As to the lubricant, we’re not talking about hairball “treats” in the cat food aisle of the supermarket. What you want is a product like Laxatone — the gooey stuff that comes in a tube, like toothpaste. It’s really just flavored, medical-grade petroleum jelly, so in a pinch, grab the Vaseline and feed it to the dog after the bread. Don’t worry. Any dog that willingly ate a light bulb will probably scarf down Vaseline, Wonder Bread, even cotton balls if you mix in a little food.

Besides the risk of mechanical damage, did a compact fluorescent light bulb pose any danger of toxicity? I knew that incandescent bulbs use a tungsten filament. Until recently, tungsten has been considered nontoxic. Although this is now being reevaluated, the amount of tungsten in a light bulb filament is far too small to be hazardous in any case. CFLs, however, contain a very small amount of elemental mercury. Mercury poisoning has gotten a lot of press over the years. Hat makers in the 18th and 19th centuries used mercury in curing felt. Prolonged exposure caused mercury poisoning, with symptoms including severe muscle tremors, twitching, shaking, confused speech, visual and auditory impairment, and ultimately hallucinations and psychosis. Hence the expression “mad as a hatter,” and, some say, the inspiration for the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Regulations were eventually passed to protect hatters, but mercury toxicity continues to be a concern for people, coming from sources ranging from ingestion of contaminated fish, whale, and dolphin meat, to mercury in dental amalgams. Was my light bulb–loving patient at risk of being poisoned?

A quick search of my online veterinary database provided a long list of similar cases, even including one cat. Who knew so many pets liked eating light bulbs? Get those dogs some rawhide chews! In each case, veterinary toxicologists agreed. The CFL mercury is not in a form easily absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, and the amount is too small to cause concern, anyway. Inhaled mercury vapor could be damaging, but exposure from one broken CFL was insignificant.

It’s one of the intriguing aspects of veterinary medicine — needing to learn the risks posed by ingestion of so many commonplace things: that eating a box of raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs. Or that chewing on a lily can do the same in cats. How about the fact that a teaspoon of antifreeze can kill a cat? Or that pennies minted after 1982 are primarily zinc, and can be toxic if ingested? But for today’s patient, I now knew there were no dangers other than those posed by the glass fragments themselves. For a dog his size, there was an excellent chance of passing them uneventfully. “Keep a close eye on him for the next three days,” I concluded. “Observe his bowel movements. See what he passes. If he shows any signs of loss of appetite, vomiting, or abdominal pain, go see a vet right away.” And keep those light bulbs in the closet.