80-Proof Saves The Day

A dusty old bottle of 80-proof vodka saved a dog’s life recently after he was poisoned by antifreeze.

We’ve joked about that bottle of booze sitting in the emergency drug cupboard for years – ever since I started working at Hillcrest Animal Hospital more than a decade ago. But it was in there because it’s the only practical treatment for dogs or cats who lap up automobile antifreeze. The only other antidote, fomepizole, is rarely available due to its high price and relatively short shelf life.

I once raised a few eyebrows by bursting into the local LCBO at midday hollering, “Where’s your vodka?” It didn’t help my reputation when I told them it was for a dog.

Often these poisonings don’t have a happy ending since the toxin – ethylene glycol – is absorbed rapidly and quickly starts to cause irreversible damage to the pet’s kidneys. Luckily for the lovely labrador that got our bottle of vodka, his owners had quickly noticed what happened and rushed him to Hillcrest only minutes after he slurped up the poison. Too often we don’t even know a pet has gotten into antifreeze until it’s too late for the antidote to work.

Successful treatment of ethylene glycol intoxication must begin within 8 hours of ingestion to be effective. For cats in particular this often means death since they may lick up a little antifreeze spilled on a neighbour’s driveway and nobody knows there’s a problem until they are too far gone. It takes only a few teaspoons of the toxin to kill a cat or small dog and the sweet taste makes it attractive.

The good news is that it has been a long time since we’ve seen a confirmed case of antifreeze poisoning – I’m knocking on wood here. In part this is because dogs and cats aren’t allowed to roam as much as they used to be. It is also likely that public awareness of the dangers is fairly high and spills are carefully cleaned up. There is also a less toxic antifreeze product containing propylene glycol available which may be contributing to lower fatalities.

We’re restocking the vodka just in case.

Information on ethylene glycol toxicity and other dangerous substances is available online through the Animal Poison Control Center.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist, DVM
Hillcrest Animal Hospital, February 2012