Dog’s Encounter With Toad Toxin Proves Fatal

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bufo toads, which emit a poison substance from glands on their head, are not a native species in Florida, but they appear to be moving from South Florida to central parts of the state
  • When dogs, cats and other pets try to either pick Bufo toads up with their mouths or eat them, the toads emit the poison, which can cause seizures and kill the pet if intervention doesn’t occur immediately
  • The world’s largest toad, also known as a cane toad or marine toad, Bufo toads are often attracted by food and water left out for pets
  • Bufo toads burrow underground and go into a hibernation state when conditions are dry, but at night and when there’s a lot of rain, they’re forced above ground to reproduce and lay their eggs in whatever freshwater habitat is available
  • The Bufo toad, with the scientific name of Bufo marinus, is very similar to a nonpoisonous toad species called Bufo terrestris, which is native to Florida and completely harmless

Imagine being the woman in Tampa, Florida, who noticed she hadn’t seen her three dogs for a while after letting them out, so she went outside to check on them. That’s when she saw her dog, Otis, standing in the yard holding a huge toad in his mouth. Almost at the same moment she realized it was a poisonous Bufo toad.

In a short time Otis collapsed. Brynn Kelly dashed into the house, returned with a jug of water and tried to flush out his mouth, but the damage had already been done. Otis went into seizures and began foaming at the mouth. Soon afterward, he died in her lap.

When the toads are alarmed, they “produce a pasty yellow-white toxin in the parotid glands, which extend from the head backward over the shoulder region and is released through pinhole openings in the skin,” says Get a Life Pet Rescue, based in South Florida.1 Just a small amount of the poison is enough to kill a dog or cat.

Kelly’s Bufo toad encounter occurred in early April of 2019. Now, she’s anxious to get the word out about the dangers of the fairly benign-looking amphibian, the world’s largest toad, also known as a cane or marine toad, which are native to South America, Central America and Mexico but have made their way to Florida.

Bufo Toad Species Spreading Northward From South Florida

Experts say Bufo toads often emerge after heavy rain. They burrow underground and go into a hibernation state when conditions are dry, but after an exceptionally wet spring in 2018, they were forced above ground to reproduce and lay their eggs in whatever available freshwater habitat they could find, including ponds, lakes, ditches, canals and even swimming pools.

They’re more active in the spring and summer, but they’re also somewhat nocturnal, so most pet encounters occur in between evening and early-morning hours when pets are allowed outside. Water or food left outside for pets can attract the toxic toads, and when pets run across one, they often react by licking them or picking them up, and that’s how they get the poison in their mouths.

In the 1950s, Bufo toads were known to reside in South Florida after making their way to the state as a means to control sugar cane pests.2 In fact, Florida news outlets reported thousands of sightings. But in the past few years, they’ve been spotted in several areas farther north in Central Florida.

That explains why Bufo toads have been found more frequently in Kelly’s Riverside Heights neighborhood, which is bordered by the Hillsborough River. The river flows from Hillsborough Bay into Tampa Bay, Florida’s largest open-water estuary, known for its shallow depth of only 12 feet.3

What to Do if Your Pet Finds a Bufo Toad

Pet owners whose animals have ingested the toxin or gotten it on their mouths should act as quickly and calmly as possible to wash the pet’s mouth with large amounts of cool water. A garden hose, shower or kitchen sprayer or even a water bottle should be directed so the water forces the poison out of their mouth. Florida Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) veterinarian Greg Cooper notes:

“The toxin is very irritating to the mouth, so it could be red. They may go into shock in a short time, or they may be drunk acting. They will probably be pawing at the mouth … The toxin can start taking [effect] in a matter of minutes after they ingest it. (Pet owners) have to act very quickly or they could lose their pet.”4

Swabbing out pet’s gums and the insides of their mouths with a microfiber cloth may also help remove as much of the sticky substance as possible so the pet doesn’t swallow it. Rinsing out your pet’s mouth can also be beneficial. The next step is to get the pet to your vet ASAP. Other words of advice are:

  • While working on your pet, make sure your pet doesn’t panic and bite you. If your panic scares your pet, even the gentlest animal can stress out — and lash out.
  • Don’t try to force so much water into your pet’s mouth that he chokes and drowns.
  • Don’t waste time driving to a veterinary facility that might be closed after hours. Call first.
  • Also keep the phone number and address of the nearest emergency veterinary clinic readily available in case your regular veterinarian is unavailable.

As of yet, there’s no specific antidote for Bufo-toxin. First responders may find their pet’s heartbeat to be irregular, and their body temperature can reach hyperthermia — a body temperature higher than 105 degrees F — after going into seizures. A veterinarian dealing with a pet poisoned by the toxin may use intravenous fluids, anti-arrhythmic drugs and cool water baths.

My suggestion is to reach for your homeopathic first-aid kit if you encounter this medical emergency: high potency Nux Vomica can be a life saver in these situations, and immediate dosing can be the difference between life and death in some situations.

How to Recognize a Bufo Toad

According to the University of Florida's Florida Wildlife Extension, one problem with identifying the Bufo toad, which has the scientific name of Bufo marinus, is that it is very similar in appearance to a nonpoisonous species Bufo terrestris, also known as the Southern toad, which is native to South Florida.

Additionally, female Bufo toads are larger than males, they’re usually found on the ground rather than in trees, and they’re known to have a loud mating call. The Orlando Sentinel reports:

“The safe Southern toad has crests over its eyes that look like eyebrow ridges, and small oval glands behind these crests. The dangerous cane toad lacks these crests, and the glands on its head are long and triangular shaped.”5

In addition, adult Bufo toads can reach as large as 6 to 9 inches in length.6 Bufo toads are larger than their harmless cousins, which generally measure just 1 3/4 to 4 1/2 inches long. Be aware that there are also younger and smaller Bufo toads that are just as dangerous, but they all have brown, gray-brown, spotty “camouflage” coloring, as well as warts.

Even dogs on a leash can come upon a toad near their pathway and grab it long enough to get the poison in their mouths before their owners understand what’s happening.

The upshot is that in both South Florida and Central Florida, leaving your dog or cat unattended outdoors could result in a tragic end for your pet. Before letting your pets outside, check the yard, especially in the evening, and don’t leave pet food or water on the ground to attract the toxic toads. Adding a fence with chicken wire along the bottom will help prevent Bufo toads from getting onto your property.

As Orlando Sentinel reporter Tiffini Thiesen advises in the featured video, “Dogs definitely like to chase things that jump, and this thing is the ultimate little predator.”