Christine and Jeff Goldman are the first to admit that Bailey, their rascally Jack Russell cross, is the joy of their family, bringing his zest for life to every moment. 

So when he came to their back door one morning after backyard play, shaking his head and foaming at the mouth, they knew something wasn’t right.

Fast thinking brought them to the team at VCA Hillsboro, Florida, who were just opening the hospital doors for the day. The team rushed outside to greet the Goldmans and Bailey, who they could see were in great distress. The team immediately phoned veterinarian Dr. Samantha Beck-Pollio, DVM, who was stopped at a nearby traffic light. She provided step-by-step instructions to start triaging the unusual symptoms.  

Bailey was entering a full-blown seizure.  The cause?  Contact poisoning -- from a Bufo toad.

South Florida’s fastest-growing pet menace

The Bufo toad, also known as the cane toad, came to Florida in the 1930s, when sugar cane growers used them to protect their crops from pests.  The species is native to Central and South America.  However, the current population is believed to be the descendants of abandoned mail order pets from the 1950s.  

The toads are greyish, reddish brown or dark brown, with telltale triangular glands in their shoulder area.  They are usually 4-6 inches in size, but can grow up to 9 inches in length. The Bufo toad thrives in humid, rainy environments, where they live in flood plains, swamps and lowlands outside recently developed neighborhoods.   It’s also believed that they become territorial over time.  Clearing a yard of toads often results in twice as many returning the next day.

Although originally invited to Florida, the Bufo toad has become an invasive and threatening presence in the state.  The toad produces (and sometimes projects) a viscous, white bufotoxin when provoked or threatened.   The poisonous toxin, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, could kill a dog or cat within 15 minutes of contact.   The toads are dangerous at all stages of their life cycle; even tadpoles carry enough toxin to poison a small cat or dog.  

Unfortunately, the Bufo toad is often hard for outdoor pets to avoid.  Toads are attracted to the protein in animal droppings, and will quickly fill a yard where droppings have not been removed.  They often take over an outdoor food or water dish, where a curious pet might lick, bite or throw the toad around.  With every contact, the pet runs the risk of ingesting more toxin.

“At first glance, it might look like your dog’s just throwing around an old chew toy, maybe a baseball mitt,” said Jeff.  “Unless you knew better, you wouldn’t think anything of it.”

Many Florida newcomers are totally unaware of the dangers – and even longtime Florida residents are surprised by how prevalent the menace has become.  Recent newscasts have shared footage of swimming pools overflowing with toads.  Because the threat to human and animal health has become so serious, the Commission now encourages Florida residents to humanely euthanize any they encounter.  

Heavy rainfall means breeding season, and a single female toad can birth 8,000 - 35,000 eggs twice per year.   As a result, summer is an especially dangerous time for outdoor pets in South Florida, and an important time for pet owners to know the symptoms of contact poisoning.

What should you watch out for?

  • Excessive drooling, foaming at the mouth, or mucus build-up
  • Discoloration or excessive redness of gums
  • Crying, howling or extreme anxiety
  • Repetitive shaking of the head
  • Progressive loss of motor control, descending into convulsions and unconsciousness

Advanced symptoms can include massive temperature fluctuations, arrhythmia, stroke, and cardiac arrest. If you believe your pet has encountered a Bufo toad, do not force liquids or run a hose into their mouth, as this runs the risk of increased toxin ingestion.  Instead, gently wipe their gums, tongue and mouth interior with a clean, damp towel to remove unabsorbed toxin.   Seek emergency care as soon as possible – the severity of symptoms will depend on the amount of toxin consumed.

Humans should avoid all contact with Bufo toads.  Bufotoxin can cause a painful, burning sensation, vision problems, and uneven breathing in humans.  If you are dealing with an infestation, it’s recommended to seek a professional removal service.

VCA Hillsboro saves the day

Veterinary technician Victoria Hoffmann began carefully rinsing out Bailey’s mouth, placing an IV catheter and providing support, tapping into Bailey’s moxie and strength. 

“I didn't think we were going to lose him; I knew he was strong,” says Victoria. “You have to see that connection with them. You can't ever have a negative thought.”

Because of his fast-thinking owners and the immediate, coordinated life-saving action of the VCA Hillsboro team, Bailey is back to his energetic self. 

“He’s full of life and full of happiness,” report his relieved owners.

“It would have been a huge hole in our family, if not for their quick, excellent work,” says Jeff, in gratitude to the professional and compassionate response. “We can’t thank VCA Hillsboro enough for bringing our Bailey back to us.”

When the unexpected happens, every minute matters.  VCA Animal Hospitals are here for you.  Visit our website to locate the closest 24/7 emergency veterinary center near you. 

“We can’t thank VCA Hillsboro enough for bringing our Bailey back to us.”