Alcohol Poisoning

Date Published: 07/04/2005
Date Reviewed/Revised: 02/18/2020
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Dogs and cats can get more than just drunk when they drink ethanol, isopropanol, or methanol -- they can get a trip to the emergency room. Pets can die from ingesting alcohol. 

What are ethanol, isopropanol, and methanol?

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is most commonly formed from the fermentation of sugars. Ethanol is found in alcoholic beverages, some liquid medications and mouthwash bases, rotting/fermenting fruits, and rising (raw) yeast-containing bread dough. The “proof” of ethanol is twice the percentage of alcohol concentration (i.e. 80 proof = 40% ethanol). Although ethanol is also in some household inks, cleaners, and solvents, the levels are low enough to generally be of no clinical significance if these products are ingested by pets.

Isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol) is in rubbing alcohol (70%), some anti-freezes, some detergents, glass/window cleaners, perfumes/colognes, and alcohol-based topical sprays, including some pet flea-control and grooming products. Isopropyl alcohol is more than twice as potent as ethanol or methanol.

Methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol) is most commonly found in automotive windshield washer fluids (20-80%), but is also in some gasoline additives, “canned heat” fuels (e.g. Sterno®), and some household solvents (e.g., paint removers).

Although the strength of these three alcohols vary, the clinical signs associated with their ingestion by dogs and cats are quite similar.

All poisoning problems boil down to the amount of alcohol ingested compared to weight, just like a dosage of medicine. Thus, when pets drink an alcoholic beverage that was left within reach, or that was given to them intentionally by someone, it can cause a significant toxicity problem. In addition, significant absorption can occur through the skin or by inhalation.

Dogs are highly susceptible to the effects of alcohols. Signs of mild inebriation may occur with even minor exposure. Within 15 to 30 minutes after the pet has drunk the alcohol on an empty stomach (or within 1 to 2 hours on a full stomach), central nervous system (CNS) signs, such as staggering, excitement, or decreased reflexes, can begin. Behavioral changes can be seen, as can an increased need to urinate. As the problem gets worse, the pet may become depressed, have a slow respiratory rate, or go into cardiac arrest. Puppies and kittens are at particular risk because of their small size and immature organ systems. 

Alcohols are depressants, so many of the clinical signs associated with them are due to their effect on the CNS. Alcohols irritate the gastrointestinal tract. They also act as diuretics, and the alcohol and its metabolites are eliminated by the kidneys. Liver damage may occur after exposure, although it is much more common in animals that have repeated or chronic exposure. 

Clinical Signs

Clinical signs of intoxication can occur within 15-30 minutes of ingestion of alcohol. Signs include nausea, vomiting, thirst, urination, dehydration, lethargy, incoordination, disorientation, becoming cold (hypothermia), low blood pressure, and alcoholic bad breath. In severe cases, blindness, tremors, tetraplegia, respiratory depression, coma, or seizures may develop. Death is uncommon but may occur, especially if the pet has severe respiratory and cardiovascular depression, low blood pressure, and/or hypoglycemia. 

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is based on a history of exposure, combined with appropriate clinical signs and laboratory tests.  

Treatment/Management/Prevention

The treatments your veterinarian may use can include assisted ventilation, intravenous fluids (to improve elimination of the alcohol/metabolites, to provide cardiovascular support, and to correct electrolyte abnormalities), seizure control, and other supportive therapies. In addition, if the alcohol toxicosis is due to the ingestion of bread dough, your veterinarian may need to wash out your pet's stomach with cold water to inhibit further alcohol production and to break up the dough mass for removal. In addition, your pet will be confined to prevent accidental self-injury.

Prognosis

Most dogs with alcohol intoxication can recover with adequate symptomatic and supportive care. Recovery may take 8-12 hours, and tends to take longer if it was a severe intoxication or if isopropanol was involved.

Preventing Alcohol Toxicosis

All alcoholic beverages and alcohol-containing fluids should be kept out of reach of your dogs and cats. Consult your veterinarian before giving any ethanol-containing liquid medications.

Do not feed raw bread dough to your pets or leave bread dough out to rise in areas that can be reached by them. Always dispose of discarded bread dough carefully. 

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