Accidental pet poisonings happen every day, and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center fields calls about them. We talked to an expert to find out what items are most toxic for pets and what to do to prevent poisoning in the first place.

By Brendan Howard
March 15, 2021
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You notice your pet has gotten into something they shouldn't have.

Or you suspect your cat or dog has eaten something toxic, because they're showing signs of a possible poisoning.

You might panic. We'd understand if you did.

First step: Call your veterinarian or a 24-hour phone hotline. Then a medical expert can ask what your pet ate, how much of it, and tell you whether there's nothing to worry about or you need to keep a close eye on your pet for a while or rush them to the animal hospital.

It's a scary experience for any pet parent, but luckily there are some easy things you can do to keep your pet safe from harmful substances in your home.

This year, Tina Wismer, DVM, MS, DABVT, DABT, a veterinarian and senior director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, shares with us the center's top 10 toxins that were culprits in poisoning calls from pet owners.

Have you made sure these items are out of reach of your curious cats and inquisitive dogs?

ASPCA Top 10 Pet Toxins of 2020

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center received calls about more than 260,000 exposures to potentially poisonous items in 2020. That was a 13% increase year-over-year from 2019.

Wismer says that increase was partly fueled by people spending more time at home during the pandemic: "Staying at home more often means more time spent with pets and noticing more behaviors that may have gone unnoticed previously. Also, given COVID-19 restrictions, many pet owners picked up new hobbies—baking, gardening, both indoors and outdoors. With new hobbies, new toxins, including a variety of plants and baking ingredients, pose a threat to pets."

After a year of more time at home than ever before, these are the top pet toxin exposures for dogs and cats according to the ASPCA.

Pet Toxin Infographic
Credit: Connie Smothers

1. Over-the-Counter Medications 

OTC meds made up nearly 17 percent of exposures. Most common items? Cold medications, vitamins, and pain relievers (ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen). "Most pet owners are very cautious when it comes to foods to watch out for," says Wismer says, "but often forget to keep their medications out of paw's reach." Wismer says pet owners should keep medications locked away at all times and never leave pills lying around in purses and backpacks.

2. Human Prescription Medications

Prescriptions (not the pet-safe ones from your veterinarian) were 15% of exposures. Common kinds included antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and cardiac medications.

3. Food

Human foods that are toxic to cats or dogs, made up 13% of exposures. This year, bad reactions came from protein and snack bars as well as grapes and raisins (which are bad for cats and dogs), xylitol, garlic/onions.

4. Chocolate 

The sweet treat makes up almost 76 exposures per day. The higher the cocoa content, the more dangerous it is for cats and dogs, making straight cocoa powder, semisweet chocolate, and dark chocolate the most poisonous types.

5. Plants

With well-meaning bouquets and more gardening during the pandemic, toxic exposures to plants are up from 8th place the year before. Want to enjoy greenery with less worry? Try choosing from some of these cat-friendly plants and dog-friendly plants.

illustration of cat pawing the leaves of an indoor plant
Credit: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay

6. Household Toxicants 

Things like paint, spackling, and other DIY home improvement substances made up a significant number of reported pet poisonings this past year. It's no surprise given that many people spent a large portion of their time in their homes due to the pandemic.

7. Rodenticide

Rat poison exposures were even more difficult to treat this year because of the rising popularity of baits with cholecalciferol (vitamin D) which can cause kidney failure if not treated promptly.

8. Veterinary Products 

Veterinary products are normally good, but not in high quantities or used for the wrong conditions. Notable this year were chewable medications for pain, incontinence, or anxiety.

9. Insecticide 

Insecticide poisoning cases (due to things like ant killer, wasp poison, and products used against larvae and eggs) continue to fall year-over-year, down to just 4.7% of cases.

10. Garden Products

Sitting at number 10 on the list again this year, garden products like fertilizer and weed killer make up almost 3% of reported cases of pet poisoning.

How to Poison-Proof Your Home

"The best way to avoid an emergency situation with toxic items is to be aware of things that can be toxic to pets and keep them out of paw's reach at all times," Wismer says.

First, educate yourself on what's around the house by reading up on what items are toxic for cats and dogs. Including a few things you might not expect:

Next, while you can never ensure a perfectly safe house for pets, Wismer recommends a few basic tasks:

  • Do a sweep. "Take a few moments around your house to get down on the ground and look around to see what would be enticing to your pet," she says. A great time to do this is before you welcome a new pet into the home, but you could make a pass every so often (or, y'know, when the top 10 pet toxin list comes out each year!)
  • Lock up the dangers. Keep pesticides and cleaners away from pets. Child-proof locks on cabinets are a good way to keep pets out and remind you there are toxic items behind the door. 
  • Keep an eye on your pets. "Familiarize yourself with what's potentially poisonous and pay attention to everything they may get hold of," Wismer says. Pets are curious and love to taste and eat things that smell good to them. And don't forget your cats: "Remember that cats can climb higher than dogs and may be able to find new ways to reach things."