Dogs are naturally curious and, for better or worse, they explore the world mouth first. Our trail dogs are particularly vulnerable to eating the wrong things simply because they’re exposed to so much more than the average backyard pup. While some things that your dog may encounter (and consume) are pretty harmless (wild strawberries and peanut butter sandwich remnants, for instance), there are other things that can cause major problems for Fido.
We chatted with the veterinary team at 360 Pet Medical in Bozeman, Montana, about what they see, and it’s common for trail dogs to come into contact with or ingest dangerous items. Here’s what’s on their no-chomp list:
“With dogs that eat rocks,” says Certified Veterinary Technician Morgan Underwood, “they can become obstructed, so the rock would either get stuck in their stomach or farther down their intestinal tract, and need to be surgically removed.”
An obstruction is a complete or partial blockage that prevents solids and liquids from passing through the gastrointestinal tract as they normally would, which can lead to a variety of problems from dehydration to intestinal damage (the tissue can begin to die or even break).
2. Animal Feces and 3. Dead Animal Carcasses
“Probably the most significant [danger] with those would be parasites,” Underwood explains. “GI parasites and GI upset, so vomiting or diarrhea. And if they did get a bone or something from a carcass, it’s kind of a similar concern to a rock.”
Dr. Renee Schmid, Senior Veterinary Toxicologist with Pet Poison Helpline & SafetyCall International adds that while it’s less likely on a trail or out in the wilderness, secondary poisonings are possible if a dog eats an animal that was poisoned itself. (Your dog could be affected by the same poison that killed its snack.)
This may include cigarettes, recreational drugs, or discarded prescription medications. “It’s not uncommon for dogs to pick up things like marijuana on trails,” Underwood says. “When we see dogs for that, they do require hospitalization and supportive care to help them through some of the symptoms that they experience, because just like [with] things like chocolate, they don’t metabolize them the same way that people do, so they have varying degrees of symptoms that we see
5. Fish Hooks
“Fish and the bait that they use on [fish hooks] all smell very interesting,” says Underwood. “We see fish hooks get stuck in mouths a lot from the dogs licking them, or stuck in various places. That usually requires them to be sedated so that we can cut the fish hooks out to remove them.”
Unfortunately, not everyone leaves no trace of their forays into the wild. Many dogs will scarf down trash that they find on the trail (or anywhere, for that matter). This can lead to “garbage gut,” which is essentially the same GI upset previously mentioned, and/or obstructions, if the trash that’s been swallowed won’t easily pass through the dog’s digestive system.
7. Snakes and 8. Porcupines
What usually happens here is that dogs get curious about snakes and porcupines, and maybe try to eat them, which results in wounds ranging from painful to potentially lethal, depending on which animal they were curious about.
If a dog were to eat a snake, the main concern would likely be an obstruction, or poison, says Underwood. There are venomous snakes, which cause problems when they bite you, and then there are poisonous snakes, which cause problems when you eat them. Take the garter snake, for example, which is known to eat poisonous prey and store the toxins in its own body — not to mention the bacteria and parasites that call snakes home. But for the most part, snake snacks aren’t lethal.
And last, but not least, poisonous plants and — dun dun duuuun —
Dr. Schmid at Pet Poison Helpline says that mushrooms are generally more of a concern than plants when it comes to our fluffy vacuum cleaners: “Depending on what region you’re in, and depending on what that geography looks like… there are a lot of potentially fatal mushrooms,” she says. “A lot of times, pet owners let their dogs off-leash, so they see that they get into something, but they’re not sure what, and dogs ingest these mushrooms before [their owners] even have a chance to figure out what just happened. So, we think about the death cap mushroom, the destroying angels — those amanita mushrooms — those are a true concern that dogs definitely do get into.”
Schmid says that dogs that ingest this type of highly toxic amanita mushroom will have very significant GI symptoms, often including blood present in their stool and/or vomit. “Within about a day or two, they develop liver failure. Most of the time, they don’t survive that,” she explains. “If they do survive that, then they usually develop kidney failure and don’t survive that. And you can see these anywhere in North America.”
Why do dogs want to eat mushrooms? “I think part of it is that dogs are dogs; animals explore with their mouths,” Schmid says. “And I think that some [mushrooms] may put off a scent that they find to be [interesting].”
10. Poison Hemlock and 11. Water Hemlock
Poison hemlock and water hemlock, both found throughout the U.S., can be lethal if ingested — even in small amounts. According to Schmid, local irritation and redness are more common problems faced by dogs who encounter hemlock plants, simply because they are so toxic that people tend to be very careful about keeping their dogs from consuming them. “If they were to get into… water hemlock,” Schmid says, “we can have seizures developing. Poison hemlock can cause respiratory paralysis, so [those who have ingested it are] not able to breathe because of significant muscle weakness.”
If poison hemlock is ingested, serious symptoms frequently appear within an hour of consumption. Water hemlock is considered the most toxic plant in North America and can be fatal in as little as 15 minutes, according to WebMD. It’s a good idea to learn how to ID these plants because both of them may be found along trails: while water hemlock usually grows in wet meadows and along the edges of streams and lakes, poison hemlock prefers sunny fields and even roadsides.
12. Stagnant Water and 13. Blue-Green Algae (Cyanobacteria)
Stagnant water can definitely cause GI upset, says Underwood. And if blue-green algae is present, lapping up (or playing in) that water can actually be deadly. Fun fact: Blue-green algae are not algae at all, but a very striking and potentially dangerous type of bacteria called cyanobacteria that can produce cyanotoxins when in bloom. According to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, “Shock, liver failure, respiratory arrest, and even death can occur'' when dogs are exposed to these toxins.
“Blue-green algae is definitely a big concern,” says Schmid. “The downside is that a lot of times with the naked eye, we can’t know if it’s [an algae or bacteria] that’s problematic.”
Before you panic…
A lot of native plants, Schmid says, are relatively harmless. “Most of the time, those things are just going to cause some sort of stomach upset to occur [if anything].” They usually have to get into a much higher amount than we tend to let our dogs ingest — almost always regardless of the plant, with the exception of the water hemlock and the poison hemlock — before we see a big issue.
If you’re curious about which plants are most commonly ingested by pets in your area, check out Pet Poison Helpline’s interactive Toxin Trends Map, and for more information on both toxic and non-toxic plants, you can also consult the ASPCA’s extensive list.
How do you know if your dog’s been poisoned?
Dogs that have been poisoned may experience the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Blood in stool
- Seizures or tremors
- Changes in behavior (lethargy, unsteadiness, hyperactivity)
- Unexplained bleeding or bruising
If your fur baby gets into something suspect and/or exhibits any of the symptoms above, stay calm, take some notes about what you’ve observed, and give your vet or Pet Poison Helpline a call right away. Pet Poison Helpline’s “Stop, Drop, and Control” infographic contains some helpful info about what you can expect during those calls.
So, do our four-legged friends possess any instincts about what they should and shouldn’t eat? Not so much, say both Underwood and Schmid. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I continue to be amazed by what animals find appealing,” says Schmid.
We want you to enjoy your time on the trails! Curb questionable foraging and keep that tail wagging by bringing some of your dog’s favorite treats or snacks along in your backpack, their Backpack, or your trust Utility Pack.