Toad Poisoning in Cats

By Renee Schmid, DVM, DABVT, DABT; Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT; Rania Gollakner, BS, DVM, MPH

What is toad poisoning?

Toad poisoning occurs when a cat is exposed to the toxins secreted by certain species of toads. In the United States, exposure to most toads causes only mild signs with licking or ingesting these toads resulting in drooling, vomiting and oral irritation.

Two species of toads in the Unites States can cause severe poisoning—the cane toad and the Colorado River/Sonoran Desert toad. Licking or ingesting one of these toads can cause vomiting, diarrhea, changes in heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, neurologic signs, and respiratory distress.

The cane toad (Rhinella marina) may also be known as the bufo toad due to its former genus name (formerly Bufo marinus). The cane toad is typically found in Florida, Texas, Hawaii, Louisiana and other tropical areas. These toads are very large, between 6 to 9 inches long.

The Colorado River or Sonoran Desert toad (Incilius alvarius) is found in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. This toad is also very large, growing up to 7.5 inches long.

Although dogs are more likely to be exposed to poisonous toads, cats have been reported to develop poisoning as well. Encounters with toads are more common in the rainy season (March-September) when breeding occurs. Toads are most active after a rainfall or during dawn, dusk and nighttime.

What causes toad poisoning?

Toads secrete toxic substances through glands on their skin. These substances are secreted in higher amounts when the toad feels threatened. When a toad is licked or eaten, absorption of these toxic substances through the mouth, open wounds or other mucous membranes results in poisoning. Toads are poisonous at all stages of life, including the tadpoles and eggs. Even drinking water from a bowl in which a toad was sitting or pond water containing eggs can result in poisoning.

What are the clinical signs of toad poisoning?

Within minutes of licking or ingesting a toad, drooling and frothing at the mouth occur. The gums may become very red and signs of pain, including pawing at the mouth or vocalizing, may be seen. Vomiting and diarrhea are common. Signs typically progress rapidly to include stumbling, tremors, seizures, abnormal eye movements, difficulty breathing, increased/decreased heart rate and abnormal heart rhythms. Without rapid treatment, death may occur.

How is toad poisoning diagnosed?

Most cases of toad poisoning in cats are diagnosed when a cat has the expected signs and a known or suspected exposure to poisonous toads. No specific test is available to confirm toad poisoning. Blood work, radiographs (x-rays) of the chest or abdomen and ECG may be helpful to determine the severity of poisoning and determine the necessary supportive care.

How is toad poisoning treated?

One of the most important treatments for toad poisoning is immediate flushing of the mouth with large amounts of running water. This can decrease the amount of poison absorbed and the severity of signs. A sink sprayer or turkey baster can be used. Aim the sprayer or baster forward, pointing out of the cat's mouth. Try to point the cat’s head downward to decrease the chances of water being swallowed or inhaled. Make sure to rinse the mouth, face and eyes thoroughly.

Further treatment will vary depending upon the signs that develop. Intravenous fluids, anti-nausea medications, medications to control the heart rate, muscle relaxants, medications to control seizures, and medications to treat abnormal heart rhythms may be necessary. A medication, Digibind, that specifically reverses the effects on the heart may be considered in severe cases. Administration of intravenous lipid (fat) solution can also be considered to treat the effects of toad poisoning. Surgery or endoscopy may be necessary to remove ingested toads.

What is the outlook for toad poisoning?

The outcome depends upon the species of toad, geographic location of exposure and how rapidly care is provided. Quick decontamination and treatment are necessary for a good outcome. Severe poisoning is more likely in Florida, where death is common if immediate care is not provided. No long-term effects are expected if the cat survives the initial poisoning.

Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, MN is available 24/7 for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline’s fee of $65 per incident includes follow-up consultations for the duration of the poison case. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at www.petpoisonhelpline.com

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