I had an urgent call from a colleague last week about one of her patients – Mattie, a Jack Russell Terrier who presented in respiratory distress. She had developed fluid around her lungs, which was preventing them from expanding properly. The fluid turned out to be pooling blood, and after questioning her owner, the vet determined that Mattie had accidentally ingested rat poison and was in danger of dying without quick action.
Rat poisons are very effective. This is fortunate for humans who have trouble with unwanted rodents, but not so fortunate for the rodents or other animals who happen to ingest the poison. Each year, thousands of accidental poisonings occur, and it’s our pets and children who are most at risk. Rat poisons are typically placed on the floor, where they are easily accessible to little ones. Though the rat poison pellets are usually colored bright green, dogs and cats have poor color vision, so the pellets may resemble pieces of kibble.
Cats and dogs are in double danger, as eating the rat poison is not the only way it can hurt them. Ingesting a poisoned rodent can also poison your pet. Your pet may find an ailing rat or mouse who has ingested poison and view them as easy prey.
Common rat poisons are anti-coagulants, meaning they stop the blood from being able to clot. Every minute of every day, your blood vessels are undergoing repair from small leaks. It is our body’s miraculous system of clotting mechanisms that keep us from bleeding to death from every little leak our vessels endure. Rat poison looks to disrupt this system, and it does a mighty fine job.
Rat poisons prevent the recycling of vitamin K in the body, and vitamin K is a required part of the clotting mechanism; without it, our blood simply cannot clot. All of those little leaks go unchecked, and eventually, life-threatening anemia will result. It does take a few days for all of the vitamin K in our bodies to be used up, though, so signs of rat poisoning generally don’t occur until two or three days after ingestion of the poison.
Rat poisons cause internal bleeding, so obvious signs will generally be missing. (One interesting exception to this is the young dog I saw who was in the process of losing several baby teeth, and was bleeding profusely from her gums because she had ingested rat poison!) If your dog or cat has ingested rat poison, some early signs may be pale gums and lethargy from low blood levels.
Your veterinarian can run tests to determine if your pet’s blood clotting mechanisms are functioning. Prolonged clotting times coupled with exposure to rat poison make diagnosis a snap.
Treatment varies slightly depending on the severity of anemia, but all treatment centers on providing extra vitamin K to help your pet’s blood clot. Some pets who have already lost a lot of blood, like Mattie, will need a blood transfusion, which can be costly without the help of pet insurance.
In Mattie’s case, a blood transfusion was out of the question due to the owner’s finances. But Mattie pulled through thanks to quick thinking – my colleague was able to infuse the blood from her chest back into her veins (a procedure called an autotransfusion). While it wasn’t ideal, it was treatment the owner could afford, and it saved Mattie’s life!
If you suspect your pet has come in contact with rat poison, get them to your vet immediately.