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Hopelessly Irresistible, This Catch Poisons Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • A few toad species secrete a deadly toxin through their skin that can be quickly fatal to a pet (typically a dog) who licks or picks up the toad in his mouth
  • Signs of poisoning appear within seconds to minutes after exposure, and emergency treatment is required to save the pet’s life
  • The two most common species of deadly toads are the Sonoran Desert or Colorado River toad, and the Marine or Cane toad
  • Fortunately, toxic toads are found only in a handful of locations in the U.S.

In certain areas of the U.S., for example, the Gulf Coast, toxic toads are commonplace, and believe it or not, toad poisoning in dogs is also somewhat common.

Poisonous Toad Species

The two most well-known species of toad that are deadly to pets are the Sonoran Desert or Colorado River toad (Incilius alvarius, formerly known as Bufo alvarius) and the Marine or Cane toad (Rhinella marinus, formerly known as Bufo marinus.

Sonoran Desert (Colorado River) toad
Sonoran Desert (Colorado River) toad
marine (cane) toad
Marine (Cane) toad

These toads are quite large, reaching 8 or 9 inches in length as adults. They are typically only found in and between Arizona and California, as well as in Texas, Florida, Hawaii and other tropical areas. Of the two species, the Marine or Cane toad is considered more poisonous.

How Toad Poisoning Occurs

A toad hopping by can be an irresistible temptation to many dogs. Whether they view them as a curiosity or prey, dogs typically catch toads in their mouths. All toads secrete a foul-tasting substance through their skin that would-be predators don't like. But deadly species of toads, when threatened, produce a highly toxic chemical that is absorbed through membranes in the dog's mouth, and sometimes the eyes.

The toxin is similar to the human heart medication digoxin and consists of compounds called bufotoxins and bufodienolids, and biogenic amines such as bufotenines, bufotionins, epinephrine and serotonin that are produced in the toad's parotid glands and skin. As the dog mouths, licks or chews the toad, the glands are compressed, which secretes the toxin.

Less commonly, the toxin is absorbed through wounds or broken skin, and there have also been reports of poisoning as the result of toads sitting in a pet's water bowl, or even just the lip of the bowl. Most cases of toad poisoning occur during the warmest months of summer when humidity is high and the toads are more active. Dogs usually encounter the toads in the early morning or after dark.

Toads are omnivores. Their natural diet is insects and small rodents, but they will also eat pet food left outdoors. This is often how dogs come into contact when them — at an outdoor food or water bowl. It's advisable if you live in an area these toads inhabit, that you not leave pet food or water outside.

Signs to Watch For

If your dog comes in contact with a toxic toad, he'll exhibit one or more of the following symptoms almost immediately:

Heavy drooling

Vomiting yellow fluid

Pasty diarrhea

Pawing at the mouth or eyes

Head shaking

Difficulty breathing

Overheating (hyperthermia)

Mucous membranes that turn brick red in color

Neurological signs such as dilated pupils, loss of coordination, vocalization, seizures, collapse and death

Toad poisoning is a life-threatening medical emergency. If you know or suspect your pet has been exposed to a deadly species of toad, rinse his mouth out immediately (preferably with a constant stream of water from a faucet or hose) and call your veterinarian, the closest emergency animal hospital and/or the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661.

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Diagnosis and Treatment of Toad Venom Toxicity

When a veterinarian is checking for possible toad poisoning in a dog, he or she will perform a physical exam and run a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry profile and urinalysis.

The results of these tests are typically normal, however, there is often an unusually high level of potassium (a condition called hyperkalemia), and there may also be an abnormal heartbeat. If the dog is exhibiting symptoms of toad venom toxicity, the veterinarian will use that information as well in reaching a diagnosis.

The first step in treating toad toxicity is to flush the dog's mouth with large amounts of water for five to 10 minutes to prevent further absorption of the venom. Often this is done under anesthesia so the entire mouth and throat can be thoroughly flushed. Activated charcoal may also be administered.

Since an abnormal heart rhythm is a common symptom of this type of poisoning, the dog's heart function and response to treatment will be monitored using an electrocardiogram (EKG). Drugs may be administered to control an abnormal heartbeat.

A poisoned dog may also need to be placed in a cool bath to keep her body temperature stable. Intravenous (IV) fluids will be administered to keep her hydrated and to manage seizures. Sedation may be necessary, especially for dogs in obvious pain or extreme distress. These patients should be continuously monitored until they are fully recovered.

If your dog has been exposed to a toxic toad, time is your enemy, so it's crucial that you get your pet to your veterinarian or an emergency animal clinic immediately. Pets treated before the toxin is fully absorbed, within about 30 minutes, have the best chance of recovery. I recommend giving a high-potency dose of homeopathic Nux Vomica on the way to the ER. Sadly, the overall prognosis is not good, and death is very common in dogs exposed to toad venom.

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