Antifreeze Poisoning in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

You may not have heard of it, but ethylene glycol poisoning is a potentially deadly condition in dogs common in winter. More popularly known as antifreeze poisoning, this results from the ingestion of ethylene glycol, which is a common ingredient in automotive radiator coolants, windshield deicing agents, hydraulic brake fluid, motor oils, developing solutions for photography, wood stains, solvents, and paints. As little as a tablespoon can result in severe acute kidney failure in dogs and about five tablespoons can cause death.

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Are you suspecting that your dog is experiencing antifreeze poisoning? Read on for more information about the condition.

Causes of Antifreeze Poisoning

As winter approaches, many people “winter-proof” their vehicles or toilets by using antifreeze. Even some holiday ornaments like snow globes contain ethylene glycol. Dogs come into contact with antifreeze when it leaks from a car’s engine onto the ground, when it is spilled onto the ground while being added to a car’s engine, when the antifreeze container is left uncapped, when dogs drink from a toilet with antifreeze, or when something as harmless as a snow globe falls to floor and cracks open.

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Antifreeze is recognizable by its bright green coloring and “sweet” taste. It might leave a repulsive aftertaste, but by then, it may be too late. Small amounts can be fatally toxic to the body’s organs, including the brain, kidneys, and liver. The primary ingredient of antifreeze, which is ethylene glycol, is metabolized by the body into toxic metabolites that lead to severe kidney failure and, sometimes, the formation of calcium oxalate crystals in the kidneys.

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Symptoms of Antifreeze Poisoning

The signs and symptoms of antifreeze poisoning manifest themselves in 3 stages:

Stage 1

The first stage occurs within 30 minutes to 12 hours of ingestion and looks similar to alcohol poisoning.

  • Uncoordinated gait
  • Excessive drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive urination

Stage 2

The second stage occurs within 12 to 24 hours after a dog ingests ethylene glycol. Some of the symptoms from the first stage may seem to disappear, but this is because the damage has advanced internally.

  • Head tremors
  • Twitching muscles
  • Rapid eyeball movements
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Labored breathing
  • Dehydration

Stage 3

The rest of the symptoms often develop 36 to 72 hours after ingestion of ethylene glycol. During this stage, severe acute kidney failure is occurring.

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  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Coma
  • Inappetance
  • Seizures
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Excessive drooling
  • Painful/swollen kidneys
  • Low body temperature

Treatment of Antifreeze Poisoning

It’s extremely important that you have your dog seen by a veterinarian as quickly as possible after ingestion of anything that contains ethylene glycol. The earlier treatment is started, the greater the chance of survival.

Standard tests include a urinalysis and complete blood test, which will be sent for laboratory analysis immediately. Your veterinarian may also use ultrasound to look at the liver and kidneys, which are often swollen in response to ethylene glycol ingestion.

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Treatment for antifreeze poisoning depends on when the pet is brought to the veterinarian. If the pet is treated within a few hours of ingesting antifreeze, you may be able to avoid inpatient treatment.

Antifreeze itself is not very toxic, but it is broken down by the liver to other components that cause the damage. If the pet is presented to a veterinarian soon after drinking antifreeze, a drug is given that impairs the liver from converting antifreeze to these toxic products, allowing the unconverted antifreeze to pass in the urine. The treatment goal will be to prevent absorption of ethylene glycol into the body, to increase excretion or removal of the substance from the body, and to prevent the body from chemically processing the ethylene glycol into toxic compounds.

  • Vomiting is induced to remove any antifreeze still in the stomach.
  • Charcoal is placed in the stomach to bind antifreeze in the intestine.
  • Intravenous fluids will be given to correct or prevent dehydration, increase blood flow to the tissues, and to promote elimination of urine, increasing the possibility of eliminating the ethylene glycol from the body before it can do much damage.
  • Treatment for ethylene glycol poisoning includes the antidote fomepizole (also known as 4-MP) or ethanol. Fomepizole is expensive but lifesaving when administered to dogs within the first 8 to 12 hours of ingestion.

If most of the ethylene glycol has been metabolized by the body treating the symptoms becomes the goal: correcting fluid, electrolyte, and acid–base disorders; promoting elimination of urine; and hasten removal of the toxins from the body. If this is the case, your dog may need several weeks before kidney function is fully reestablished.

Prevention of Antifreeze Poisoning

Ethylene glycol is readily available in many brands of antifreeze and, as mentioned, dogs find the sweetness of antifreeze quite tasty. So if they find antifreeze, they’ll drink it. Enough of the fluid can be ingested before the animal is aware of the aftertaste, at which point too much of the fluid has been taken into the body.

As a pet parent, it is your responsibility to keep your dog safe.

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  • Take care to keep both new and used antifreeze in a sealed container out of reach of pets.
  • If antifreeze is placed in toilets make sure the lid is down and the door to the room is closed
  • Clean up any spills of antifreeze on driveways and other hard surfaces.
  • Make a habit of checking the neighborhood for spills, such as the type that would occur in driveways or curbside when someone refills the coolant/antifreeze chamber in a car’s engine.
  • Throw a bucket of water over suspicious puddles to disperse the liquid.
  • Some “pet-safe” antifreeze products contain propylene glycol, which is much safer than ethylene glycol if ingested. However, to be safe, it should still be kept out of reach of pets.

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