By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/3/2007 11:39:15 AM ET 2007-04-03T15:39:15

It’s been almost a year now since Troy Master’s 4-year-old cat, Bill, died after nibbling on a bouquet of lilies. Even so, I could hear the pain in his voice as he told me about that terrible day.

“I felt like Bill would always be safe in my house, so having this happen from flowers just kind of blew my mind,” Masters told me.

He had put the vase of lilies up high, where he thought his two cats couldn’t get at them. Both did. One got very sick, but survived. Bill, a Maine Coon, could not be saved.

At the time, Masters didn’t know lilies are highly toxic to cats. Eating even a small amount of the plant can cause kidney failure.

“You just cannot trust a cat; they can climb,” says Steven Hansen, senior vice president of the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center. That’s why the ASPCA says cat owners should never bring any type of lily into the house.

Many other plants are toxic to both cats and dogs, including the azalea, kalanchoe, oleander, and sago palm. Tulip and narcissus bulbs can cause convulsions and cardiac problems.

On the other hand, despite what we hear each year around Christmas, the poinsettia is not a toxic plant. It can cause a little stomach upset, but the ASPCA says it is not poisonous to pets.

Home is where the dangers are
Our homes are filled with things that can poison our pets.  Dogs tend to get into trouble more often than cats because they’re not very picky about what they eat.

“Remember, these are animals that think cat poop is a delicacy!” says Therese Grover, DVM, a veterinarian at Seattle’s Animal Critical Care and Emergency Services. “They’ll eat just about anything and everything if it’s left in their reach; even things you wouldn’t think taste good.”

According to the ASPCA, human medications are the top threat to dogs. The following can be lethal to them, even in small doses: pain killers, cold medicines, anti-cancer drugs, antidepressants, vitamins, and diet pills.

It's easy to assume a child-resistant container is also dog-resistant. But this safety packaging won't stop a dog — to them a pill bottle is just another toy.

The ASPCA’s Steve Hansen wanted to see for himself how quickly his dog, Gracie, could get into a pill container. So he got one, filled it with candy and dropped it on the floor. Hansen says it took Gracie less than 15 seconds to crush it and get to the candy inside.

New threat for dogs: xylitol
Xylitol is a natural sweetener used in all sorts of sugar-free products, including gum, mints, ice cream, and a variety of foods made for diabetics.  Last year, after seeing a huge increase in the number of xylitol poisonings, the ASPCA issued a warning about the sweetener.

Here’s the problem. Dogs metabolize xylitol differently than people. It causes a sudden drop in blood sugar, which results in seizures, tremors, weakness, and collapse. Even small amounts of xylitol — just 3 or 4 pieces of gum sweetened with it — can make a pooch very sick.

In some cases, a dog can be comatose within a half hour. Other times, it can take up to 12 hours for symptoms to develop. So if you ever suspect your dog ate something containing xylitol, call your vet right away. Just because the animal doesn’t show warning signs immediately, doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods; life-threatening liver damage can develop a few days later.

Other food threats
I think every pet owner knows that chocolate is a no-no. The ASPCA says milk chocolate in small amounts is not a serious threat — a couple of Hershey’s Kisses aren’t going to hurt the average dog. A bag of them, eaten by a small dog, is a different matter.

Both baking chocolate and high-quality dark chocolate are more of a threat because the ingredient that affects dogs is more concentrated in them.

Did you know you’re not supposed to feed your dog grapes or raisins? Noel Richards learned all about that when her Cocker Spaniel, Ollie, ate a bag of chocolate-covered raisins. She knew the chocolate was a problem, but until she contacted her vet, had no idea the raisins were also a threat.

“We were lucky,” Richard says. “We found out about it right away.” After having his stomach pumped Ollie was miserable for a couple of days, but he’s OK.

Grapes and raisins seem to be a hazard specific to dogs. The ASPCA says they can cause kidney failure. “We don’t know why it happens. We don’t know what the toxic level is,” Steve Hansen tells me. “But it is well-documented that it does happen.”

Some dogs can eat grapes and raisins without ill effect. Others can get very sick after eating just a few. Because so little is known about the toxin involved, the ASPCA urges pet owners not to feed their dogs any grapes or raisins. In rare cases, that treat could kill your pet.

Your goal is a poison-safe home
You can protect your pet if you act as if you had a toddler in the house — one who never grows up. Store anything toxic in a place where your pet cannot get at it — up high or in locked cabinets or containers.

Remember the potential hazards in your garage, including anti-freeze and other fluids for your car, and yard chemicals. Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are all potentially fatal to your pets.

If you ever suspect your pet has gotten into something dangerous — act quickly. Don’t wait for symptoms to develop; they can take a while. Call your vet right away.

There is much more you can do to make your house a poison-safe home. I encourage fellow pet lovers to read more about the subject.

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