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How Deadly Is Antifreeze to Pets?

Updated on September 4, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.

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The active ingredient in conventional antifreeze is ethylene glycol, while the active ingredient in so called "pet safe" antifreeze is propylene glycol. While we know that ethylene glycol is highly toxic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that propylene glycol, however, is safe.

It's still toxic, but at a much higher level than ethylene glycol. An animal consuming a lethal dose of ethylene glycol would generally survive a comparable dose of propylene glycol. For, as Paracelsus said in the early 1500's, “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”

Do-it-yourself auto mechanics should be aware that ethylene glycol (the bad stuff) is also a component of engine coolant and hydraulic brake fluids. Any spills on your garage floor or driveway should be quickly and thoroughly cleaned up.

If allowed to remain, it may start to "harden" if you will, leaving a residue after you've removed the remaining liquid. A cat's rough tongue could easily lift the residue, delivering a lethal dose of the toxin.

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s talk about the deadly danger that just a small amount of ingested antifreeze presents to our dogs and cats.

These two facts will give you an idea of just how toxic antifreeze is:

  • a cat that walks through a puddle of the stuff, and then licks its paw, will likely ingest enough to kill it.
  • It would take less than 3 ounces of antifreeze to kill the medium sized dog that ingests it.

For some reason, both species are attracted to the product and will readily drink it. Most of what you read and hear says that antifreeze has a sweetness to it that they like. Well, dogs are taste-receptor challenged and cats, through a genetic defect, are unable to detect sweetness. One could argue, perhaps, that the aroma of antifreeze is what’s attractive.

Does it even matter? Me thinks not. The fact is, both species will drink it without hesitation for whatever reason, and it can kill them in just a few days.

Ethylene glycol affects the brain, liver and kidneys, and it’s the kidneys that are usually the first to go, taking the animal with them. The damage caused to kidneys is severe and irreversible. Most animals that die from antifreeze poisoning do so from kidney failure. The sooner treatment is begun, the greater the pet’s chances of survival.

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Quick Action Is a Life or Death Matter

The best chance for survival occurs when treatment is started within the first few hours after ingestion. If you catch your pet drinking antifreeze, or suspect that she has, call the vet and make sure whoever answers the phone doesn’t get away with, “Vet clinic, hold please.” Jump right in and state you have an emergency.

Your vet will have you drop what you’re doing and come in right away, and, if your pet is conscious, they may have you induce vomiting, using hydrogen peroxide, before or during the ride in. They’ll give you specific instructions on that procedure.

Your pet’s liver begins to break down the antifreeze and that’s where the trouble begins, as the ethylene glycol is set free to do its damage. If you can get your pet in soon after ingesting the antifreeze; drugs are given that will interfere with the liver’s ability to break it down. The “unprocessed” antifreeze can then be passed in the urine.

Initial treatment within the first few hours after ingestion may also include inducing vomiting and instilling activated charcoal into the stomach to absorb any remaining antifreeze.

Signs and Symptoms

Shortly after ingestion, your pet may act depressed, or she may get goofy, almost like she’s drunk. She may have seizures. As time goes on she’ll show a strong thirst and will consume large amounts of water, resulting in the voiding of a large volume of urine. She may also vomit.

She may even appear to be feeling a little better, but in a day or so the kidneys will begin to fail. She’ll continue to vomit, be lethargic, and urine production will slow to a trickle. It’s at this point that the prognosis takes a turn for the worse.

Pets brought to the vet in this condition frequently die unless aggressive treatment, such as dialysis or even kidney transplantation, is pursued. And even those treatments aren’t a sure fix.

A notation with this picture indicated that it was staged to emphasize caution about spilling toxic chemicals.  The cat is not actually drinking antifreeze and was not harmed.
A notation with this picture indicated that it was staged to emphasize caution about spilling toxic chemicals. The cat is not actually drinking antifreeze and was not harmed. | Source

Prevention! Prevention! Prevention!

Free-roaming dogs and cats are more vulnerable than house pets. Dogs and cats that are allowed to go outside unsupervised, but confined in the yard, are at a slightly higher risk than house pets.

Those animals could inadvertently gain access to a garage or driveway where antifreeze had been spilled.

It’s the free-roamers who have access to places where leaks and spills make antifreeze more readily available to them.

You should be concerned about your free-roaming pets’ access to parking lots, service stations, filling stations and neighborhoods where DIY auto mechanics service their vehicles in the driveway or garage.

If you bring your pets with you on winter vacations to cold weather venues, be aware that some places “winterize their pipes” by putting antifreeze in toilet bowls.

In these places, always make sure the toilet seat is down. And this time we mean it, guys!

Other simple precautions include:

● Switch to an antifreeze brand that uses propylene glycol

● Wipe up spills immediately and completely

● Dispose of empty antifreeze bottles in a way that pets can’t get at them

● Safely cap and store unused antifreeze where pets (and kids) can’t get at it

● Check your vehicle’s radiator frequently and repair leaks immediately

Remember that it doesn’t take much antifreeze to kill a dog or a cat. And it takes even less to cause serious damage short of death.

From the first gulp, the clock is ticking and time is not on your side.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Lizzy, thanks for dropping by. The reason I recommended calling the vet first is that...if it's soon after ingestion... they'll likely want you to induce vomiting...even if it means on the way in. The precious minutes that tick by without that step are significant.

      And, the procedure involves a certain amount of hydrogen peroxide given at certain intervals. It wouldn't be a matter of "just get the stuff into him."

      A big problem is if the phone answerer has a quick trigger finger. I've had it happen where they just get out the words "hold please," don't wait for an answer, and put you on hold. That's why you just have to blurt it out.

      Thanks for stopping by, voting and sharing. It's always nice to see you. Regards, Bob

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Excellent article, very important. I've been fortunate never to have had a pet drink the stuff--my pets were/are always indoor-only, or with dogs, in my own fenced yard, or leashed, only.

      As far as getting to the vet, I'd say, "JUST GO!!!" Forget taking time to call them first--just show up--they'll drop everything for an emergency intake!

      I know this from firsthand experience with our kitty who has epilepsy. One day, she would not stop seizing, and I just rushed her to the vet, and handed her across the counter... They could see the problem, and hurried her into the treatment room instantly.

      All you'd have to say would be, "Caught drinking anti-freeze!" You'd get the same VIP treatment!

      Voted up/across, and shared everywhere!

    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      I hate the winter, too, Patty, for a bunch of reasons. I've never known anyone who lost a pet to antifreeze, but one of my customers had a neighbor that did.

      Their cat got into it from a puddle in the driveway. I guess the neighbor's guilt never went away. As you pointed out, an avoidable tragedy.

      Oh, alright. If you feel you must spread the hub all over Facebook, go ahead :)) Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

      Hello, Kathy, thanks for dropping in. I don't suppose you use much antifreeze out in Vegas, but you sure do use engine coolant, which is equally as dangerous. I'll bet the free-roaming pets face an ever-present danger.

      Around here we have leash laws that have pretty much brought a halt to free-roaming dogs, but a lot of cats are still out and about. No one knows how many succumb to antifreeze.

      As they become sick cats often go into seclusion, and the victims of ethylene glycol probably die there. The owners assume it ran away, was kidnapped, or got hit by a car. Heartbreaking thought. Thanks for commenting and for the votes. Regards, Bob

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 

      5 years ago from Waukesha, Wisconsin

      Excellent advice! Here in Las Vegas, I see so many pets (cats mostly) that are outdoors during the day because of the nice weather, this is excellent advice for any pet owner! Voted up and more! :)

    • Pages-By-Patty profile image

      Pages-By-Patty 

      5 years ago from Midwest

      I hate winter for this very reason!

      Such an avoidable tragedy and we needed the reminder, so thanks Bob!

      I'm posting this on Facebook, if you don't mind! :)

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