Charlotte Means, D.V.M., ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center
Molly Murphy was a busy young beagle. When this puppy didn’t have her nose to the ground intently sniffing at some faint scent, she was happily playing with her toys or getting lots of attention from the Murphy family. Although she was fed a proper diet, Molly still tried to eat everything in sight, quickly earning her the nickname the Hoover. She was always foraging for tidbits off the floor and often tried to open the kitchen drawers and the kids’ backpacks in search of even the tiniest treats.
Despite her love of food, Molly had boundless energy and eagerly anticipated her morning walks. So when one day she didn’t want to get out of her bed, the Murphys became concerned. Aside from her lethargy, though, Molly seemed to be the picture of health, so the household hurried off to school and work. But when the family returned home, they found that Molly’s condition had not improved. In fact, she had worsened. She was still very lethargic, and there was evidence that she had been vomiting and had also had diarrhea. Her family rushed her to the veterinarian.
Upon examination, the veterinarian discovered that Molly had a very tender abdomen and was sore to the touch. She was also severely anemic and jaundiced (a yellowing of the mucous membranes caused by excessive bilirubin in the blood). Several potential diseases, including autoimmune hemolytic anemia and tick-borne diseases like ehrlichia, needed to be ruled out as the cause of Molly’s illness.
The veterinarian began by taking abdominal radiographs, which immediately pinpointed the puppy’s problem: Her stomach was full of coins. As a result, Molly was diagnosed with zinc poisoning. Treatment began immediately. First, she was given a blood transfusion, and then she was stabilized and prepared for surgery. The operation was successful, though Molly’s family was surprised by the results. A total of 22 cents12 pennies and a dime, to be exact was removed from her stomach.
Making Cents of Zinc Poisoning
All pennies minted in the United States since 1983 contain 99.2 percent zinc and 0.8 percent copper. Although small amounts of zinc are necessary for good health, overdoses can be life-threatening. In small animals, initial symptoms of zinc poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, and lethargy. Severe cases can lead to kidney and liver failure. Death is possible when animals are left untreated. What’s scarier is that most animals need only have ingested one or two pennies to be diagnosed with the disease.
Once a diagnosis of zinc poisoning by ingestion is made, treatment can begin promptly. Surgical removal of the zinc-containing substance is critical, and blood transfusions, sometimes multiple transfusions, may be necessary. In severe poison cases, chelation treatment may be required. A chelator is a drug that binds to a metal, such as zinc, and helps the body eliminate it. But many chelators can cause significant side effects, including kidney failure, so chelation treatment is prescribed only when it is truly necessary. In a case like Molly’s, where the zinc-containing pennies are ingested, surgically removing the coins usually enables the animal’s system to produce new red blood cells, thereby eliminating the zinc naturally and avoiding the need for the chelation treatment.
Out of Sight, Out of Stomach
Many domestic pets, including cats and ferrets, will readily eat any coins made available to them. Interestingly enough, people have also been known to eat pennies. In one infamous case, more than 2,000 pennies were removed from the stomach of an adult human. Keeping loose change in a jar or drawer and out of the reach of curious pets is one simple way you can help prevent a potentially fatal accident for your companion.
Luckily, Molly made a full recovery. While no one in the Murphy family ever admitted to being 22 cents short, they all made a conscious effort to ensure that the floor was no longer used as a piggy bank and that their purses and backpacks were placed where Molly couldn’t explore and eat the contents.