How Harmful Is Alcohol
To Dogs and Cats?

by Gary Le Mon

Dog in party hat

It's appalling, but some people actually enjoy giving their cat or dog alcohol and watching their reaction.

As Fido or Fluffy staggers around in a semi-confused state, their humans get a good laugh.

Not every pet owner realizes that alcohol is toxic to dogs and cats. Exposure to seemingly harmless amounts of alcohol can kill a pet.

When alcohol is served, dogs and cats should be left out of the party and in a safe place.

Filling a pet's water bowl with beer or wine isn't the only way a dog or cat can be exposed to alcohol. They can also get exposure by drinking or licking up cooking products that contain alcohol, personal products such as mouthwash or perfume, cleaning products - or by getting into alcohol-containing cough syrups or other medications.

Some manufacturers* of cat and dog dental care products actually add 25% or more straight grain alcohol (aka ethyl alcohol) to their formula making it equivalent in strength to a 50 proof cocktail. Over time, excessive alcohol has been shown to cause damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system.

Either way, alcohol isn't good for canines or felines. Dogs and cats can even get alcohol toxicity by ingesting fermented foods if they eat enough of them.

Some alcoholic beverages are more dangerous to dogs and cats than others. Beer contains the lowest concentration of alcohol, usually around 4%. Wine averages 10% alcohol by volume, but some hard liquor can be as high as 90% alcohol. Even small amounts of hard liquor can potentially kill a small dog or cat. More reason to keep the liquor cabinet locked and pets in a safe place when entertaining. Keep in mind that all alcoholic beverages should be off-limit to pets regardless of the alcohol concentration.

As in humans, when a dog or cat is exposed to alcohol it causes depression of their central nervous system. Its effects on a pet's nervous system are similar to those of humans in many ways. A dog or cat slows down, becomes drowsy and loses coordination. If they're exposed to higher levels of alcohol it can depress their nervous system to the point that their breathing and heart rate slow down. Their body temperature drops. Their blood chemistry is also altered, leading to a dangerous condition called metabolic acidosis where the blood becomes too acidic. At this point, without treatment, death soon follows usually due to cardiac arrest. Even if a dog or cat doesn't die from the acute effects of alcohol poisoning, the toxin can still harm their kidneys and liver, reducing quality of life over time.

What are the signs of alcohol poisoning in dogs and cats?

Watch for changes in behavior such as problems walking or standing up, lack of coordination, drowsiness, a slow breathing rate, excessive urination, vomiting, or unresponsiveness. Sometimes a dog or cat will have an odor of alcohol on their breath. If a dog or cat has eaten a full meal before being exposed to alcohol, the signs and symptoms of alcohol toxicity may be delayed for up to two hours.

Dogs and cats that are exposed to alcohol can also have dangerous drops in their blood sugar level and may need to get glucose rapidly to avoid brain damage. Very low blood sugars can cause seizures in animals.

If your dog or cat has any of these symptoms, take them to a veterinarian's office or animal emergency center immediately. The type of treatment a veterinarian administers to a dog or cat with alcohol poisoning varies based on their symptoms, lab studies and how much they ingested. The veterinarian will likely measure the amount of alcohol in their blood and check other blood parameters before starting appropriate treatment.

Some pets may not require treatment if the amount of alcohol they ingested was small. Others will need activated charcoal to absorb the alcohol along with intravenous fluids. Dogs and cats with a very slow heart rate due to alcohol exposure may even need to be on a ventilator. Fortunately, most cases of alcohol poisoning in dogs and cats can be successfully treated if treatment is started early enough.

The Bottom Line

Giving a dog or cat alcohol at a party is no laughing matter. It could permanently harm or kill the animal. Likewise, it's important to keep all pets away from home products and personal care products. Read the label and make sure you get a non-alcoholic cat and dog dental care product. Encourage other family members to do the same. Dogs and cats don't know what's good for them and what isn't - and they're naturally curious creatures. Don't let them accidentally or intentionally consume alcohol.

References: The Merck Veterinary Manual 2014

*PetzLife Oral Care Spray and Gel: 25% Grain (Ethyl) Alcohol
*Leba III Pet Dental Spray: 25% Grain (Ethyl) Alcohol
*Only Natural Pet Oral Care: 15% Grain (Ethyl) Alcohol
*Plaque Attack Dental Spray: 12.5% Grain (Ethyl) Alcohol

DentaSure All-Natural Oral Care Spray & Gel: 0% Grain (Ethyl) Alcohol

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