To Pet Columns

A puddle or pan of drained antifreeze can hold deadly consequences for your dog or cat, or even birds and other wildlife.  Whether or not you're a pet owner, proper handling and disposal of antifreeze can prevent unnecessary poisonings this winter.

Any time of the year--but especially when temperatures dip below freezing--if an animal is acting drunk, disoriented, or you find it comatose, think three things: cold weather; sick animal; potential antifreeze poisoning.

"Don't wait to see if the animal gets better on its own," warns Dr. Mike Knight, a veterinarian specializing in toxicology and associate director of education and training at the National Animal Poison Control Center (NAPCC) at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. "Seek immediate assistance.  The animal may seem to improve but eventually it will go into kidney failure."

Dr. Knight explains that there are several types of antifreeze products on the market.  The most common product contains the radiator antifreeze/coolant, ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is also used in hydraulic brake fluids, paints, and plastics. Recently, propylene glycol has been put on the market as a radiator antifreeze/coolant.  It also has been used in other areas of industry. Propylene glycol is "relatively less toxic than ethylene glycol," but still needs to be handled responsibly.

Ethylene glycol moves quickly though the body.  If enough product is swallowed, waiting as little as 4 to 8 hours to get help can mean the difference between life and death to the animal.  An affected animal may exhibit signs of drunkenness--much like someone who has had too much alcohol to drink.  Watch for incoordination, vomiting, depression, and increased urination and drinking.

Dr. Knight is often asked the question, "What is the very least amount of ethylene glycol that would cause harm to my dog or cat?" This question has not been completely answered yet.  The least amount that could kill a dog is about 2 to 3 milliliters per pound of the dog's body weight (5 teaspoons of commercial, undiluted antifreeze can kill a 10- pound dog).  In cats, the least amount that would be harmful is again not known, but the least amount that could kill is less than 1 milliliter per pound of body weight (about 1 teaspoon in a 10-pound cat).  Thus, cats are more sensitive than dogs to ethylene glycol.

Why would a dog or cat drink antifreeze?  While it is true that antifreeze has a somewhat sweet taste, thirst is usually the reason why animals drink it, says Dr. Knight.  When a pet's water source is frozen or empty, they will seek out an alternative.  Often antifreeze is the only liquid source available.  Don't let this happen to your pet!  Regardless of the weather, you should check your pet's water source every day.

Often the owner doesn't witness their dog or cat drinking the antifreeze product.  By the time the owner comes in contact with the animal (especially if the animal is a free-roaming dog) it may have passed through the stage of drunkenness.  If the animal is drinking excessive amounts of water, acts depressed, or shows signs of neurological problems, antifreeze could be the culprit.

Dr. Knight encourages anyone that uses antifreeze to store it in sealed containers out of reach from curious pets or children. "Drain old antifreeze into a pan or bucket and dispose of it properly.  Any puddles of antifreeze in your garage or in the driveway should be sprinkled with cat litter, swept up, and discarded in a sealed trash can.  Even diluting the antifreeze by washing it down the driveway isn't good enough. "If outdoor temperatures are cold enough, the water will freeze and leave the deadly product behind," he says.

Bittering substances such as denatonium benzoate are now added to some car and household products to deter pets and children from ingesting them. However, Dr. Knight explains that these products have only been on the market a brief time and their effectiveness is still unclear.

If you witness your pet drinking from a puddle or pan of antifreeze or suspect that your pet drank antifreeze, immediately contact your veterinarian or call the NAPCC.

The NAPCC, a non-profit service of the University of Illinois, is the only strictly animal-oriented poison center in North America. NAPCC is staffed by veterinary health professionals familiar with the responses and characteristics of different species toward chemical reactions. Veterinarians and pet owners can reach the NAPCC by calling 1-800-548-2423 ($30/case, payable with major credit cards) or 1-900-680-0000 ($20 for the first five minutes and $2.95/minute thereafter, charged directly to caller's telephone bill).  When callers use the 800 number, NAPCC will make as many follow-up phone calls as necessary.  In many circumstances, however, the fee for consultation is waived because many animal health, agro-chemical, and other chemical corporations offer their consumers a special stewardship program via the service of the NAPCC.

By Kimberly Meenen
Information Specialist
University of Illinois

CEPS/Veterinary Extension
2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907