As any gardener can tell you, slugs are a problem in the Pacific Northwest. They enjoy nothing better than a nice leafy plant or seedling, especially during the rainy season, which has been known to last all summer. But for gardeners who turn to slug bait as a deterrent, the price can be a trip to the veterinarian with a very sick dog in tow.
The active ingredient in many snail and slug baits is metaldehyde, a compound that dogs are irresistibly drawn to, says Dr. Blair Burggren of Olympia Pet Emergency. “It’s toxic for cats as well but they don’t tend to ingest it.”
Every spring Burggren sees the same thing: owners bringing in dogs with symptoms of metaldehyde poisoning. “Depending on the dose, it will cause signs within 30 minutes to several hours,” he says. “Those can include agitation, panting heavily, hyper-excitability, tremors, and seizures. A typical sign is a pretty massive muscle tremor. The toxin is affecting the nervous system and the muscles.”
The longer the symptoms continue unchecked, the higher the dog’s core body temperature will rise. “It’s not uncommon to see a severely affected dog come in with a core temperature of 108 degrees,” says Burggren.
To date no specific antidote to metaldehyde exists, so veterinary staff can only treat the symptoms and support the animal while the toxin passes through their system. “We administer a variety of drugs muscle relaxants and sedatives and IV fluid support,” says Burggren.
“Sometimes if a dog is very affected we’ll need to pump their stomach and possibly put them under anesthesia for several hours. As long as we’re able to control those clinical signs, most are discharged within a day or two.”
Catching the problem early can save pain and trauma for the dog and owner plus considerable expense, Burggren advises. “Some dogs really need a lot of medications to control the symptoms. It gets pretty expensive to treat right off the bat.” In recent years he’s had more clients call directly after witnessing their dog consuming the bait. “They’ll say, ‘My gut feeling is that is a problem. Is it?’” he says. “We see it more on the weekends because that’s when people are out gardening.”
Knowledge of the problem varies from region to region, he observes. One of his friends, a prominent toxicology expert at the SPCA, hails from North Dakota and for a long time couldn’t fathom the popularity of the deadly bait. Then she spent some time in Oregon and got a firsthand experience of the prevalence of snails and slugs. “She used to tell me, ‘I’ve never understood the lure of snail bait,’” says Burggren. “Now she understands that it’s a big problem in this area.”
Any dog owners who have had experience with this issue never forget it, but for others, knowledge of the danger and how to prevent it is on the rise. “More people know to steer clear of metaldehyde products or take specific measures to keep their dogs from getting into the garden space where they apply it,” he says. “There are also alternative ways of dealing with slugs. All of those can be successful.”
For more information about Olympia Pet Emergency visit www.olympiapetemergency.net or call 360-455-5155.