Charlotte Means, D.V.M., ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center
Batteries are everywhere in modern life. Ranging from button size to the large D cells, batteries are in our remote controls, smoke alarms, portable CD players, holiday ornaments, clocks and watches, toys…and even in our pets’ toys. Batteries have become so common that we hardly give them a thought until the dog chews up the remote control. Then we become concerned: Is ingesting a battery just an annoyance…or a potentially serious problem?
Most batteries, in order to increase cell life, contain potassium hydroxide, which decreases corrosion. These batteries are usually called alkaline. Potassium hydroxide, however, is itself a corrosive agent that causes ulcerations and burns in the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, in the esophagus and on the skin.
Dogs are most commonly affected because they chew and puncture the battery casing. If the battery is chewed into pieces and the fluid swallowed, or if the battery case is cracked, allowing fluid to leak out, burns can occur in the mouth and esophagus. If the fluid leaks onto the skin, dermal burns can occur.
Did He, Or Didn’t He?
If battery fluid has been ingested, the tips and sides of the tongue will usually appear red and raw, or will have a whitish-gray appearance due to dead skin. The dog will generally drool heavily and may vomit. He may be quiet or may whimper or cry due to pain. Although many animals will stop eating because of oral pain, some dogs will continue to eat, but may chew slowly and carefully. The dog may appear to have difficulty swallowing. These signs often are delayed and may not appear for up to 12 hours.
If a dog ingests a battery, it’s important to know what kind it is and if it was ingested whole or chewed into pieces. When a battery is missing, and it is not known if the dog actually ingested it, an X ray will show if pieces of the battery are in the stomach.
When ingestion is recent, the most important initial treatment is to dilute the corrosive fluid. Small quantities of milk—based on the weight of the animal—can be given. Large amounts may cause diarrhea. Vomiting should not be induced without consulting a veterinarian, because if the dog vomits the corrosive fluid, the damage to his throat can be significantly increased.
If pieces of the battery are present in the stomach, surgery may be required to remove the battery and prevent further leakage of the fluid. An intact battery, on the other hand, may obstruct the intestine, requiring surgical removal. Sometimes, if the battery is intact, a high-fiber “bulking” diet may aid in passage of the battery.
Dogs who develop clinical signs will require veterinary care consisting of antibiotics, pain medications, medication to protect the stomach and intestines and special diets. A veterinarian may recommend that a dog’s throat be examined endoscopically to access the damage to the esophagus. If severe scarring occurs, the dog may have difficulty eating and swallowing later on.
Prevention is the best cure. Keep battery packages out of reach of all pets, in secured cupboards or drawers. Remotes, toys and appliances that contain batteries should also be placed out of reach. Toys that roar or make other interesting noises may have batteries inside. Allow the dog to play with these toys only under supervision, and remove the battery if the dog “kills” the toy.
In the 21st century, it’s probably impossible to eliminate batteries from our homes. Therefore, we need to handle them responsibly, just as we do small, sharp objects, poisons, medications and other household items that present a hazard to our animal companions.
Dr. Means is a veterinary toxicologist at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, IL.
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