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My Dog Ate a Penny: Zinc Toxicity and Poisoning in Dogs


Our little dog, aptly named Penny, ate 6 pennies and almost died. I'm writing this as a warning to pet owners.

Are Pennies Poisonous to Dogs?

Yes, they are. If a dog swallows pennies it can make them sick... maybe even fatally sick. Zinc toxicity is a scary thing. Newer pennies are mostly made of zinc; ingesting few as one to three pennies can cause problems.

Our little dog, aptly name Penny, ate 6 pennies and almost died. I'm writing this article as a warning to pet owners, and even parents, so they can identify the signs and symptoms of zinc toxicity and penny poisoning before it's too late.

Symptoms of Zinc Toxicity

Zinc toxicity can manifest as "acute zinc toxicity" or "chronic zinc toxicity." Acute zinc toxicity is caused by the sudden exposure or ingestion of a toxic amount of zinc or zinc containing materials. Chronic zinc toxicity is caused by excessive exposure to zinc over time and can be caused by regular over-consumption of zinc vitamins/lozenges, or chronic exposure to zinc fumes/particles (welders can be afflicted).

Symptoms of Acute Zinc Toxicity in Dogs

  • Stomach pain, headaches, lethargy
  • Diarrhea, vomiting, nausea
  • Urine retention
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Pale gums and/or tongue
  • Orange-colored feces
  • Dark, brown, or red-colored urine

Symptoms of chronic zinc toxicity may also include fever, joint pain, chronic cough, low blood pressure, seizures, or metallic taste in the mouth. Some welders or those that spend a lot of time in a similar industrial setting my experience "Zinc Shakes" which is caused by chronic inhalation of zinc particles/fumes.

Without taking your dog or cat to the vet, the only way you can know for certain they have zinc toxicosis is if you catch them in the act. Be aware of your pet's habits and the signs of zinc toxicity as it might save their life.

Common Items Made of Zinc

  • Pennies (US pennies minted 1982-present, Canadian pennies minted 1997-2001)
  • Other coins (certain UK £1, £2 coins)
  • Nuts, bolts, nails, and staples
  • Jewelry, zippers
  • Other galvanized metals (steel coated in zinc oxide)
  • Items made of brass (an alloy of zinc and copper)
  • Cold lozenges, zinc vitamin supplements
  • Board game pieces (ex: old Monopoly pieces)
  • Die cast toys (ex: Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars)
  • Electrical fuses, certain batteries and car parts
  • Certain ointments, creams, lotions, suppositories, and shampoos (some denture creams, diaper rash creams, sunscreens, calamine lotion)
  • Certain paints, fertilizers, fungicides, antiseptics

Treatment of Zinc Toxicity in Dogs

If you suspect your dog or cat (or child!) has consumed a penny or similar zinc containing item, get them to the hospital ASAP. The sooner they receive treatment – and the quicker the zinc is removed from their system – the better the prognosis.

If zinc remains in the body for long enough, it can cause hemolysis (or breaking down of red blood cells) which can result in anemia. This stage manifests as blood in urine (which can look brown to red), yellowing of the eyes, and/or pale gums. Later stages of zinc toxicity may result in seizure and marked depression. If left untreated, zinc toxicity can be fatal as a result of multiple organ failure.

In general, for diagnosis, you can expect the following:

  1. An overall physical examination including questions about your dog's history of foreign object ingestion or past incidence of vomiting up coins or similar items. Younger animals tend to express this behavior more than older ones.
  2. Your pet may require an x-ray to confirm the presence of a metallic object.
  3. A vet may perform a blood test, urinalysis, and/or liver and kidney panels.

Treatment of Zinc Toxicity will depend on the extent of the condition:

  1. If the coins or zinc containing object are still present in the stomach, your vet may induce vomiting.
  2. Coins that have been in the stomach for a longer period of time may adhere to the stomach lining and require either an endoscopic procedure or surgery to remove it.
  3. To help flush the zinc out of the system, your vet may hook your dog up to an IV.
  4. To combat anemia, your pet may be placed in an oxygen chamber or – in extreme cases – be given a blood transfusion.
  5. During their stay at the hospital, your pet's blood and urine may be monitored.
  6. Your dog may be on medication during their stay and once you take them home.

Every animal is different, but in general, once the zinc object is removed acute symptoms will resolve within 2-3 days. Fatality will continue to be a possibility as long as blood or urine levels remain abnormal.

Did Our Dog Swallow a Penny?

Penny, a beagle/cattle dog mix, has been obsessed with metal for as long as we've had her. She will gnaw on zippers and lick our metal coffee table, cabinet knobs, jewelry, and coins. She loves coins. This particular habit has been at best, our dog's funny quirk (e.g. licking women's jewelry while they're wearing it), and at worst, a nuisance (e.g. destroyed zippers on jackets). We had looked into potential nutritional reasons for her behavior, but we have her on premium food and she has no dietary deficiencies as she's had her blood checked before. Additionally, her littermate in a different household has the exact same obsession. Dog genes, I'm looking at you!

Penny has discovered and promptly eaten coins on about 3 separate occasions; every time she has thrown up the change like some kind of gross slot machine. We always thought the biggest danger with her coin obsession was the risk of it getting stuck in her intestines. While we suspected coins could be dangerous if caught in the digestive tract, we had no idea that pennies can cause serious damage to the body before they even get to the intestines.

Our Dog Ate a Penny

The recent incident occurred over the holidays, on the night after we had returned from a weeklong trip. My husband caught Penny eating a nickel she had found on the floor and pulled it from her mouth before she could swallow it. She then had a big bowl of food before going to bed. The next morning, she was lethargic but still walking around. We assumed that she was in a funk because the family she had stayed with had another dog in the house and she probably missed her; she has acted like this before. She then threw up about a dollar in change and, based on our past experiences, we assumed she'd begin feeling better.

The next morning, she had not improved and was not drinking water or eating. I lost it when she went outside to go to the bathroom and her urine was the color of blood. We scooped her up and rushed her to animal urgent care. The vet we saw (Dr. Shenandoah Diehl, the bright spot in this whole experience) told us that it was the pennies that she had eaten that had made her sick.

Penny's stomach acid had partially digested the coins and – because pennies minted in or after 1982 are more than 95% zinc with a thin copper coating – her stomach ate through the copper allowing the to zinc leach out at toxic levels. Because the coins had stayed in her body for more than 12 hours and she had not thrown them up quickly (like she had before), she had acute zinc poisoning.

Coin Ingestion in Children

Small children, toddlers, and babies are at particular risk for penny poisoning and zinc toxicity. Coins are the most commonly ingested foreign object among young children aged 6 months to 3 years. If you suspect your child has eaten coins and observe flu-like symptoms, or if you child is experiencing stomach pain, take them to the hospital for immediate care.

Lessons Learned

Overall, Penny was in the hospital for about 48 hours. She had already thrown up the coins, so the treatment she received was to take care of the zinc that remained in her blood and fluids. She was placed on an IV while her blood was monitored, and when she became anemic, she was placed in an oxygen chamber (which basically looks like an incubator for newborns). Eventually, she needed a blood transfusion. Heck, I've never even had a blood transfusion. It was all quite scary.

When your pet is very sick, the only thing you want to know is if they will be okay; the uncertainty was one of the most difficult things to deal with. We were told not to assume Penny was "out of the woods" until her blood levels returned to a normal. Luckily, we ended up bringing her home on New Years Eve.

Penny took about a week or two to return to her normal appetite and energy level. For the first few days, she would eat nothing but rotisserie chicken (she was hand fed, like the spoiled animal she is). We then worked in plain boiled chicken, rice and potato. She was eating her normal food (more voraciously than before, I might add) after a week.

We realize that we were very lucky. We had always taken care to keep coins and other metal objects out of her reach, but we never knew how important it was to be vigilant at all times. We limit her access to certain rooms in the house and we tell all visitors about her metal fetish so they know to pick up dropped coins immediately. In hopes of curbing her habit, we now stop her from licking any kind of metal object. We know that we may not be able to prevent another incident like this from occurring, but at least we know what to do should it happen again.

Penny's Story on Youtube

Sources and Additional Information

  • What is Poisonous to Dogs? What you don't know could kill your pup!
    I also wrote a guide to common household items, plants and foods that are poisonous, toxic or deadly in dogs. I realize there are many similar guides out there, so I wrote this with an emphasis on items that are often considered harmless.
  • Zinc Toxicosis in Dogs and Cats
  • The Merck Vet Manual

Lady Wolfs on February 02, 2013:

Nice hub. Very important information for pet owners. I know there are many things an animal could ingest that are dangerous, but didn't know about the zinc toxicity. Glad to hear your dog is doing well. Thank you for sharing.

Voted up and useful!

Bob Bamberg on February 01, 2013:

Very well done, shaymarie. This is an important hub because pet owners aren't as inclined to know about zinc toxicity as they are chocolate, grapes, raisins, etc.; and many dogs are inclined to ingest coins. You've done dog owners a valuable service. Voted up, useful and interesting.

Adrienne Farricelli on January 31, 2013:

Awww, poor Penny! I'm happy she pulled through well. I'm sure your hub will be helpful for other owners and will raise awareness on the issue. Voted up and useful!


Sunscreen Ingredients and Pet Ingestion

Why dogs find certain things tasty is still beyond us, but sunscreen is one of those items the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center gets regular calls about in the summer.

If you have ever read the back of a container of sunscreen you know it can contain a number of ingredients. Generally, the primary reported issue for a pet who has ingested sunscreen is gastrointestinal upset occasionally those signs may be severe and include diarrhea, bloody vomiting and potentially dehydration.

Sunscreen generally contains two primary ingredients you should know about salicylates and zinc oxide.

Salicylates

Many sunscreens contain salicylates, often more than one kind at a variety of concentrations.

Salicylates have several effects in the body that ultimately result in a respiratory alkalosis and a compensatory metabolic acidosis rarely hepatoxicity, hyperthermia and seizures may be seen. Gastric ulcerations are also possible with exposure to salicylates.

While these more serious effects are not commonly reported when sunscreens are ingested, more caution may be warranted when large amounts or higher concentrations of salicylates are ingested.

Zinc Oxide

Besides sunscreen, zinc oxide is also commonly found in diaper rash creams. The most common sign reported is vomiting—and because it often occurs soon after exposure due to the irritating nature of zinc oxide, pets may decontaminate themselves this way.

On rare occasions, allergic reactions are reported with ingestion of zinc oxide—typically manifesting in facial swelling and pruritis. Luckily zinc oxide is not absorbed well from the gastrointestinal tract so zinc toxicity is not common with ingestions of diaper creams and sunscreens.

The Packaging

Sometimes the biggest concern regarding a sunscreen exposure is not the active ingredients, but the actual tube itself. If a pet ingests a large portion of the tube, there is concern for a foreign body obstruction.


Dog fatally poisoned by one penny

April 23, 2013 / 5:15 PM / CBS News

Some dogs will eat just about anything, from chicken bones to plants to prescription pills.

One poor pooch from Colo. lost her life after eating another item found commonly in households: a penny.

That's because pennies minted after 1982 contain zinc, which is a toxic substance to pets such as dogs and cats, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

"I used to call her my walking heart on four legs just one of the nicest dogs," Maryann Goldstein , the owner of the deceased West Highland White terrier named Sierra, said to CBS Denver, which reported the case.

Goldstein said Sierra was always attracted to change, and remembered her Westie swallowing 32 cents worth of a change as a puppy, requiring surgery.

However this March, the dog got very sick and had to go to the veterinarian. An X-ray revealed a quarter and penny in her stomach. The penny presented the biggest risk because it contained zinc.

Dr. Rebecca Jackson, a staff veterinarian at Petplan pet insurance, told CBSNews.com in an email that these newer pennies are so toxic because gastric acid from the pet's stomach can reach the zinc center of the penny quickly, causing it to be absorbed in the body rapidly.

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She said zinc interferes with red blood cell production, and the longer the exposure, the greater likelihood red blood cells will be destroyed. Symptoms of zinc toxicity include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, lethargy, red-colored urine or looking jaundiced.

"I just couldn't believe it, and this time she wasn't so lucky," said Goldstein.

Goldstein wears her dog's ashes in a heart-shaped container on a necklace, and shares Sierra's story to warn others that a penny could be so costly.

In March, one lucky New York City Jack Russell terrier had a health scare when he ate 111 pennies and became ill.

The dog, Jack, developed an upset stomach and began to vomit. When the owner brought Jack to the vet, doctors had to remove the pennies four to five coins at a time before all 111 were removed, BluePearl Veterinary Partners said at the time.

"Zinc toxicosis is more commonly seen in dogs, but cats can get sick from eating pennies, too," warned Jackson. "Be sure to bank your spare change before curious pets can get their paws on it -- and if they do, get them to the emergency vet immediately."

First published on April 23, 2013 / 5:15 PM

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Pathogenesis:

The low pH in the stomach causes the release of free zinc, which then forms soluble, caustic zinc salts. These salts are absorbed from the duodenum and rapidly distributed to the liver, kidneys, prostate, muscles, bones, and pancreas. Zinc salts have direct irritant and corrosive effects on tissue, interfere with the metabolism of other ions such as copper, calcium, and iron, and inhibit erythrocyte production and function. The mechanisms by which zinc exerts these toxic effects are not completely understood. The LD50 of zinc salts in cases of acute toxicity has been reported to be

100 mg/kg. Also, diets containing high levels of zinc (>2,000 ppm) have been reported to cause chronic zinc toxicosis in large animals.


Phosphides are found in certain types of mouse and rat poison or in mole or gopher baits. Phosphides work by releasing deadly phosphine gas, which is produced when the poison mixes with stomach acid. Food in the stomach will increase the amount of gas produced and, therefore, increase the toxicity of phosphide poisoning. Therefore, do not feed your dog or cat after they get into this type of poison. Clinical signs seen from phosphides include drooling, nausea, stomach bloating, vomiting, abdominal pain, shock, collapse, seizures, liver damage, lung damage, and even death.

It only takes a tiny amount of phosphides to cause poisoning. Also, as this type of mouse and rat poison does not have an antidote, immediate therapy should be sought by calling Pet Poison Helpline and seeking veterinary attention. Administration of antacids (e.g., Maalox®) soon after ingestion may help to decrease the amount of gas produced. Please be aware that phosphine gas poses a threat to people also, so inducing vomiting is best done by veterinary professionals (not pet owners) in a well-ventilated area or outdoors. If your dog vomits on the way to the veterinarian, make sure to open your car windows (safely) or turn on the A/C so the gas doesn’t poison you also! Inhalation of the fumes from your pet’s vomit may cause lung irritation to both you and your pet.

Never give home remedies like milk or food without consulting a veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline specialist first! Likewise, never induce vomiting in your dog or cat without consultation, as it can be more dangerous to your pet.


Zinc poisoning can occur in dogs, cats, and birds secondary to ingesting metal pieces (e.g., nuts, bolts, hardware and other galvanized metals), certain topical ointments (e.g., diaper rash creams), or coins. While some coins can be safely ingested and passed out in the stool a few days later, some types of coins contain large amounts of zinc, resulting in zinc poisoning. When the zinc-containing coin enters the acid environment of the stomach, the zinc breaks down, causing stomach upset and zinc absorption into the blood stream. Zinc poisoning can lead to destruction of red blood cells, liver damage, kidney failure and heart failure. Clinical signs of zinc poisoning include weakness, pale gums (anemia), vomiting, increased breathing, increased heart rate, discolored urine, jaundiced gums, lack of appetite, and collapse. Removal of the coin is important, or severe damage to the red blood cells can occur, resulting in a severe anemia. Without therapy, ingestion of a zinc penny can be fatal.

If you suspect your dog, cat, or bird ingested a metal piece or coin, an x-ray should be done immediately. Call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline immediately for life-saving treatment advice.

Content written by: Dr. Cat Angle, DVM, MPH, Pet Poison Helpline


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