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More Education About Pet Toxins Needed, Study Finds

dog looking at toxic foods
A team from NC State designed an online survey which asked participants to identify potential animal toxicants on a list of 25 common household items, including plants, foods and over-the-counter medications...

If your dog or cat decides to chew on the African violet, should you call the vet? If you aren’t sure, you’re not alone. A recent pilot survey conducted by veterinary pharmacists from NC State found that there’s still a lot of confusion regarding which foods, plants and medications can be toxic to pets.

Kenneth Royal, an assistant professor of educational assessment and outcomes at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, partnered with veterinary pharmacologist and lead author of the study Natalie Young and veterinary pharmacists Gigi Davidson and Bryan Lovee to determine how familiar the general public is with pet toxins.

Kenneth Royal, Ph.D., MSEd, assistant professor of educational assessment and outcomes.

Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the team designed an online survey which asked participants to identify potential animal toxicants on a list of 25 common household items, including plants, foods and over-the-counter medications. Fifteen of the listed items were toxic to pets; the remainder were not.

The survey also asked participants what resource they would use if a pet consumed the toxic item: calling a veterinarian, searching the internet or contacting a local pharmacy.

Participants had to be at least 18 years old and U.S. residents. Eight hundred and twenty-five people – a representative mix of ages, genders and races that included both pet owners and non-owners – participated in the survey. They were asked to choose either a dog or cat as a frame of reference and then rate their level of concern (with 0 being unconcerned and 5 extremely concerned) in the event of ingestion for each substance on the list. A rating of 3.5 or higher was considered an appropriate level of concern for a toxic substance, with a rating of three or higher considered an inaccurate level of concern for nontoxic items.

Participants were able to correctly identify 13 of the 25 listed items as toxic to a dog or cat, a 52 percent accuracy rate. Pet owners, who represented more than 85 percent of participants, tended to express more concern for each item listed. Similarly, females, older participants and participants from the southern U.S. expressed significantly more concern about each potential pet poison. Approximately one-half (46 percent) of participants indicated they would consult a veterinarian for more information about pet toxicology, while most others (44.6 percent) indicated they would search the internet.

“It was interesting that many of the toxic foods on the list, such as macadamia nuts, grapes, alliums (e.g., onions, garlic, chives), artificial sweeteners (xylitol) and caffeine were not sufficiently regarded as toxic,” Royal says. “Conversely, however, participants were overly concerned about nontoxic substances such as leather, pony tail palm, African violet and Famotidine (Pepcid-AC).”

“Some toxicants are clinically important in both dogs and cats while others are important in only one species,” Young says. “We wanted to see if responses would deviate, since the general public wouldn’t necessarily know which substances are poisonous for dogs, but not cats (and vice versa). Interestingly, the respondents did seem to show species-specific concerns for some of the toxins – such as chocolate and grapes for dogs and acetaminophen for cats – and they were accurate in those.”

“The main takeaway here is that there is still a lot of confusion regarding animal toxicity,” Young adds. “This investigation suggests more veterinary poisoning education is needed for pet owners to be able to accurately distinguish potential pet toxicants from nontoxicants, and it points to the need for veterinarians to focus on the internet as a source of information and help for owners in poison-related emergencies.”

The survey results have been published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.

~Tracey Peake/NC State News Services