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Creating a Safe Home for Pets

Dogs and cats are curious creatures. While that quality often makes us laugh, it can have disastrous consequences.

Source: Martha Stewart Living, February 2010


Dogs and cats are curious creatures. While that quality often makes us laugh, it can have disastrous consequences. 

Some household items are dangerous -- or even fatal -- to animals. Accidents can occur no matter how careful you are, and "they always seem to happen at midnight, when help is hard to find," Martha says. Be prepared with contact information for your vet, the nearest animal emergency room, and the 24-hour ASPCA Poison Control Center (888-426-4435). 

Download our clip-art chart with household hazards and a phone list for pet emergencies.

Pets love the sweet taste of antifreeze (ethylene glycol), which they may encounter if it leaks in the garage or driveway. Yet just a teaspoon is all it takes to kill a 10-pound cat; one to two tablespoons are lethal to a 10-pound dog. If your pet ingests any, she may seem wobbly and unsteady, as well as nauseated and unusually thirsty. Get her to the vet immediately -- an antidote must be given within 12 hours, but sooner is better. Of course, never let your pet near antifreeze, and if you spill some, clean it up right away and discard all paper towels and rags. You can use a less toxic form of antifreeze, propylene glycol. But even this is poisonous in large quantities.

People food, that is. Don't cave in to those adorable eyes when your pet is begging. "Some foods cause problems ranging from gastrointestinal issues to death," says Diane Levitan, a veterinarian in Syosset, New York. Chocolate, for example, contains a substance called theobromine, along with caffeine, which makes it toxic to dogs and cats. The darker the chocolate, the more dangerous. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, excessive thirst and urination, hyperactivity, and seizures. Pets also shouldn't eat macadamia nuts, raw or undercooked meat, grapes, raisins, onions, garlic, chives, or rising bread dough.

Pets that dig into the trash may find objects, such as bones, corncobs, and broken glass, that can obstruct and tear the intestines. Moldy foods contain toxins that can cause muscle tremors and convulsions. Buy trash cans with tight lids, or keep them behind closed doors.

Household Cleansers 
Toilet-bowl cleaner has caustic chemicals that burn the mouth and esophageal lining, Levitan says. Flush the toilet multiple times after cleaning, and close the lid. Exposure to bleach and other harsh products can cause gastrointestinal distress, skin irritation, and respiratory problems. Switch to nontoxic cleaners.

Cats in particular like nibbling on plants, but some are toxic. Ingesting even small amounts of Easter lilies, for instance, can cause kidney failure in cats. Other dangerous plants include mistletoe, oleander, English ivy, and tulip and narcissus bulbs. You can apply a deterrent to the plants, such as a bitter apple spray, but it's safer to remove them from the house. For a list of safe and unsafe plants, visit

Over-the-counter and prescription medications for people top the list of pet poisons. Not only do animals snatch pills from counters and nightstands, but they're also quick to lap up medications dropped on the floor. According to the ASPCA, the most dangerous ones are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen), antidepressants, acetaminophen, methylphenidate, fluorouracil, isoniazid, pseudoephedrine (a decongestant), antidiabetics, vitamin D derivatives, and baclofen. Always keep medications in places that cats and dogs can't access.

Bar Soaps 
Soap appeals to some pets, but the fats it contains could cause pancreatitis. Eating soap can also trigger vomiting and diarrhea. And scented versions may irritate the esophagus and mouth. Keep bars out of reach, or close the bathroom door.

Small parts in children's playthings can pose choking hazards and cause intestinal blockage in dogs and cats. But "pet toys can also be hazardous," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the United States. Be aware of how your pet plays -- for instance, some dogs baby their stuffed animals, while others tear them apart and eat them. When you give your dog a new toy, supervise the first play sessions. If plush objects are problematic, give her tougher toys.

Found in candies, gum, baked goods, and toothpaste, this sweetener can cause an insulin surge, lowering blood sugar enough to cause weakness, vomiting, and loss of coordination. It could even lead to liver failure. Any exposure can cause problems, but the more your pet consumes, the more severe the issues will be.

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