With cookout season in full swing, one concerned pet parent wrote in regarding an unusual snack her dog swiped from the grill: “Dear Dr. Ward, my dog ate some charcoal ashes from under our grill. He seems fine but I wanted to know if it could make him sick.”

Eating ashes, even a little bit, seems like a horrible idea.

If an intestinal obstruction doesn’t cause outright harm to a pet, there are some dangerous toxins found in the grill ashes. Potassium, sulfur oxides, petroleum, lighter fluids, borax and sodium nitrate may be found in certain charcoal residues and can cause severe illness in pets. As the charcoal burns, other compounds may be formed in the ash causing unknown harm.

So why would a dog eat ashes?

I suspect most dogs gobble grill garbage because it tastes or smells good, at least to them. As ridiculous as it sounds, my guess is some of the fats, fragments and flavors drip down onto the charcoal, spreading deceitful deliciousness onto a powdery puddle. A curious canine takes a little lick and gets caught up in the affair. If no one steps in, that old hound may devour enough ash to cause grave complications.

What should I do if my dog eats charcoal ashes?

Returning to the original question, my answer is your dog will probably be just fine after chowing on a teensy amount of ash. Chances are those few morsels of soot aren’t going to cause any medical issues.

I’d suggest basic blood and urine tests for liver and kidney function along with red and white blood cells conducted now and repeated in two to three months. Those simple checks could uncover any emerging problems early to allow you to intervene, if necessary. I’d also suggest closely monitoring for any changes in appetite or water consumption, normal urination and stools, and any behavioral changes or weight loss.

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Eating ashes: a case study

As odd as it may seem, I’ve actually dealt with this before, only under much more severe circumstances. I’d been a practicing veterinarian for only a couple of years when I received an unusual after-hours emergency call. “We found our dog out cold by our grill. He may be dead but I’d like to bring him in in case you can fix him.”

Fortunately for both the dog and me, the old Beagle mix was still (barely) breathing when he arrived at my tiny veterinary clinic. A quick exam and X-ray confirmed my suspicion: he had an intestinal blockage, most likely from eating a pound of ashes. After a two-and-a-half hour surgery, removal of about three feet of intestines and a few days of recuperation, he was back on his feet.

Ash eating is uncommon in pets. When it happens, it’s either no big deal or a very big deal. Keep all ashes covered and out of licking range for dogs and cats. If your pet eats an appreciable amount, even a couple of ounces, take him to your veterinarian immediately. Prompt attention could prevent life-threatening obstruction and costly surgery, even if it is covered by pet insurance. Otherwise, happy grilling and keep a close eye on those canines!

Jul 17, 2015

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