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What does rat poison look like?

Species: Dog
Breed: Lab Mix
Age: 2-5 years
I live in a town right outside of Boston, MA. We recently got a lot of snow, so they have been applying ice melt/salt on the sidewalks fairly regularly. In the past few days, I haven't noticed any new salt on the ground, though.

Last night when we were out walking around 5:15 PM, Honey started smelling something in the snow/dirt by the side of the sidewalk. Before I realized what she was doing, it was in her mouth.

I pried her mouth open and there was some clumpy white stuff stuck on her tongue. I got as much of it out as I could, but I assume she swallowed some. I didn't think much of it, and suspected it might be some ice melt, and she hadn't eaten enough to cause any harm.

But, this morning when I mentioned it to a coworker who said it could be rat poison!

I went back to the "scene of the crime" at lunch to see what the stuff was. It is white and sort of looks like fake snow. It was sort of clumped together on the ground, but when I picked it up, it crumbled in my hands like a very grainy powder. If I roll it around between my fingers, it clumps back together.

It has no scent. It doesn't look like any other ice melt or salt I have seen, and there wasn't a lot of it around, so now I am concerned. Although I do know there are a lot of different brands that look and behave differently.

Honey is not showing any symptoms of being poisoned, but I know rat poisoning can take days to show up. Do you think this sounds like rat poison? If so, do you think she got enough to make her sick (my guess would be she got 1/4 tsp at most)? Should I take her to the vet and treat her just in case, or is that excessive? My sister is in vet school and used to work for a vet, and she said the treatment is really expensive.

I thought rat poison was always bluish-green and came in pellets or blocks. But after my coworker scared me, I read on the internet that it can pretty much look like anything.

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

I'm definitely not an expert on ice melting salt (even though I do live in Canada) but I have seen a lot of rat poison that people have brought in to my office. You are right...every time I have seen rat poison it is in either green or blue chunks.

There are some types of road salt that apparently contain some antifreeze which can be toxic to dogs. However this salt has very obvious blue chunks in it.

I suppose anything is possible and yes I suppose that rat poison could come in any form but the chances that someone sprinkled rat poison on a sidewalk are probably small.

There isn't a specific test for rat poison. What it does is make it difficult for blood to clot. A couple of days after ingestion you could ask your vet to run a clotting profile. I would be shocked if it showed any problems though. I suppose you could go ahead and treat, but the treatment involves giving vitamin K for several weeks. Vitamin K is not cheap and it is often difficult to give. I wouldn't do it if this were my case.

I wonder if there is someone on your city council that you could contact to ask whether the material is a part of the snow melting process? If so, I would be very surprised if they would use something toxic to dogs.

If you do notice anything unusual such as pale gums, purple spots on her gums or belly, or anything else that seems unusual then I would give your vet a call.

I hope that helps.

Dr. Marie.

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Customer reply:

Unfortunately, the city doesn't keep track of the ice melts/salts used. Every apartment building/house is required to keep their sidewalks cleared, so everyone uses something different. Honey has to wear boot when we go out because some of the salts really irritate her paws.

I've seen so many different types of melts - from the little white balls that seem to get smooshed into the pavement, to the big salt crystals, to sand. The stuff Honey picked up was a little grainy. I definitely didn't suspect antifreeze, because it wasn't colored (although I didn't suspect rat poison, either!). I have seen the "antifreeze salt" because it turns everything near it blue.

I am worried I am making a mountain out of a molehill by becoming overly concerned about rat poison. I mean, I have a friend whose dog eats any and everything he can grab when she takes him out for a walk, and she doesn't worry that each little piece of bread he picks up might contain rat poison...but on the flip side, I know there are always risks, and I don't want to be irresponsible either.

If one of your patients ingested a small amount of an unknown, seemingly innocuous substance on the side of the street, would you recommend anything other than watching them? (I'll do it! I know it's too late to induce vomiting)

How long should one wait before running the clotting profile you mentioned? I do agree that starting vitamin K is probably excessive - do you think the clotting profile is also excessive, or is it a good idea?

Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

Can you imagine what a stink the public would make if the city were using rat poison on the sidewalks and pets were getting poisoned? It would be a legal nightmare!

If one of your patients ingested a small amount of an unknown, seemingly innocuous substance on the side of the street, would you recommend anything other than watching them?

The answer to this depends on whether you want my legal answer (i.e. cover my butt answer) or the what would I do for my own pet answer.

The answer I would give a client is this: "It's unlikely that anything unusual was ingested but if you want to put your mind at ease it's not a bad idea to run a general blood panel plus some clotting bloodwork."

What I would do if it were my own pet however is nothing. Dogs eat stuff all the time and if I ran bloodwork on every dog that ate something unusual on the street I think I would feel like I am ripping people off. I would be monitoring my pet for unusual things. If something is toxic to the liver or kidneys then I am likely to see vomiting and maybe an increase in thirst and urination and a lack of appetite. If I saw symptoms like this that lasted more than a day I would run tests just to be sure. Or, if the dog was acting very sick then I wouldn't wait and I'd run them right away.

I can't say that I have ever suspected rat poison when someone told me that their dog ate something unusual. If you ask your vet what to do they will need to legally cover themselves and recommend a clotting profile. I would likely only run it if the owner was very concerned that rat poison could be a possibility just to ease their mind.

Customer reply:

Thank you so much for your answer. I definitely understand the legal vs. personal response :)

I think I am going to watch her. I keep a really close eye on her anyway, so this will not change my routine by much. Maybe I will try to get her in for the clotting profile if things start to seem off between tonight and tomorrow.

I have been reading all about rat poison today (I didn't know much about it before). I agree that people would be up in arms if the city was sprinkling it around the streets. Also, my neighborhood is very family friendly (i.e., lots of children running around/playing on sidewalks), so I imagine that is an even bigger reason to keep things nontoxic.

I am really hoping this is nothing and I've just been silly. Thank you for your help!

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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

Is an online vet visit just as good as a trip to your veterinarian? No! But, many times, asking an online veterinarian a question can help save you money. While Dr. Marie can't officially diagnose your pet or prescribe medications, she can often advise you on whether a vet visit is necessary. You can also ask Dr. Marie for a second opinion on your pet's condition.