I’ve often talked about things that dog should never ingest (see Your Dog is Not a Human, So Don’t Feed Him Like One for more on this), but somehow I never expected to end up blogging about the dangers of dogs eating batteries. So, how did this come about? Why am I blogging about what could happen if a dog ate a battery? You can blame Leroy. It was entirely his doing.
Well, okay, it was partly my fault, because I wasn’t paying attention when I should have been. Here’s the story.
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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…
…And I was relaxing on the sofa, binge-watching Supernatural on Netflix. Outside, the rain was pounding down and the wind was high, but I had a nice little fire on in my wood stove, so I was comfy and cozy, and would continue to be even if the power went out, as it frequently does in my neck of the woods.
I wasn’t really paying too much attention to what the dogs were doing – in my defense, it was the Season 4 cliff hanger episode – so even though on some level I heard chewing, somehow I just mentally filtered it out – not a good idea, but I’m just as susceptible to brain glitches and distractions as the next person. Anyway, Leroy wandered into my line of vision, and my usually fine brain clicked back on.
“What have you got there, buddy?” I asked, and cooperative boy that Leroy generally is, he came over, wiggling his little stub of a tail. I held out my hand, and to my horror, Leroy presented me with a D-cell battery. Well, actually, it was more like about two-thirds of a battery. I’ve heard of people going cold with fear, but I never actually knew that it was meant literally until it happened to me. Terror gripped me by the throat, and my whole body went cold. I was terrified, because I love Leroy to distraction, and I also felt horribly guilty because my inattention had put him into what I knew was horrible danger.
My body froze, but my brain kicked into overdrive. My dog ate a battery!
Obviously I was a little slow on the uptake that night, but I knew that this wasn’t something I could handle on my own. Leroy and I were going to need veterinary advice at least, and possibly a whole lot more.
I grabbed the phone.
It was after hours, so when I called the veterinary clinic I got the answering service, which I knew wasn’t anything better than some call center worker wearing a headset – kind of like the job I used to do before I took up writing full time.
Fortunately, a got a good, competent call center worker. I explained the situation, and was told that the vet on call would get back to me. I waited for the longest ten minutes of my life, and grabbed the phone the instant it rang. I was beyond relieved that my vet of choice, Dr. Stephen, was on call that night, although of course I would have settled for anyone that I believed to be even remotely competent, given the circumstances.
The instant Stephen heard the phrase “My dog ate a battery,” he went into action. “This could be bad,” he said. “Has Leroy vomited? Is he coughing? Licking around his mouth?”
“No, but he’s drooling, and – oh, no, wait, Stephen,I think he’s about to hurl.” Which he did, all over my brand-new slippers. It was pretty obvious from what came up that Leroy had enjoyed a hearty meal before deciding to have the battery for dessert, as he deposited a good deal of undigested dog food on my foot. I figured that was probably a good thing, as the food probably went some way toward absorbing the toxic materials in the battery. The color of the vomit alarmed me, though – it was black.
Stephen was quiet for a few seconds. I’m not sure if he was just gathering his thoughts, or if he was as afraid for Leroy as I was. Then he said, “You’d better bring Leroy in. I’m on another call out, but as soon as I’m done,I’ll meet you at the clinic.”
Off we went, Leroy and I, through the storm that was beginning to pick up in a pretty significant way. I didn’t care – I would have driven through a nuclear holocaust rather than risk any harm to my beloved Boxer.
Of course Leroy just thought it was a fun drive with his human.
An x-ray and several hundred dollars later, since emergency calls cost considerably more than regular visits, Leroy was able to come home with me (in the dark, in the driving rain, over flooded areas and around downed trees and power lines). Fortunately, he hadn’t ingested any metal, and the battery was not of the sort that contains mercury. A little medicine for his upset tummy, and he was good to go – my big sweet doofus got a pass on something that could very well have killed him.
Why Do Dogs Eat Batteries?
Because they’re perverse. Because they just sit around and wait for the worst possible time and the worst possible weather to do the worst possible thing. Because they love scaring the living daylights out of us and costing us money.
Okay, that’s how I felt at the time, but the truth is, they do it because they’re curious. They see something with a shiny, bright surface, and they wonder if it would be fun to chew. And they do it because idiots like me leave batteries laying around instead of putting them in a drawer where they belong.
I probably don’t really need to point this out, but if you don’t want to end up in the position I found myself in, thinking “My dog ate a battery; is he going to die?” then please, please, put your batteries somewhere that your dog can’t get at them. And if you have batteries that are all used up, dispose of them safely. In most jurisdictions, you can simply put them in with your regular trash, but make sure that the trash is somewhere out of your dog’s reach – you know how dogs love to get into garbage!
Why is It So Dangerous If Your Dog Eats a Battery?
It actually isn’t always that dangerous. A small battery, if swallowed, is probably going to just pass through the intestine, and you won’t even know what happened until you see an intact battery in your dog’s feces, if you ever see it at all – if you don’t, you might not even know that your dog swallowed a battery. The danger occurs when the battery is chewed. Then, toxic compounds are released, and metal fragments can also cause harm.
One of the things that scared me the most when my dog ate a battery was that I couldn’t really tell how much metal, if any, he’d ingested. When a dog eats a battery whole, that’s one thing, but Leroy had really gone to work on that D-cell. There could have been metal in his mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach – well, just about anywhere along his digestive tract. That could have meant very costly surgery in various areas of his body – not that I cared about the expense; I was worried about the potential damage!
Is It Worse if Your Dog Eats a Certain Battery Type?
Some types of batteries are definitely more dangerous than others when ingested. There are two main types of batteries used in household devices – alkaline (dry cell) and lithium. Lithium batteries are usually those little round discs that you use in small items like cameras, watches and small electronics. This type of battery is far more likely to be swallowed whole than chewed. Alkaline batteries, on the other hand, are usually bigger and used to power flashlights, toys and other large items, although there are small types of alkaline batteries that are used for hearing aids.
When an alkaline battery (the type that Leroy ate) the damage may not just be related to any ingested metal. When the battery is chewed, corrosive material leaks out, and can cause burning in the mouth and throughout the intestinal tract. It can even cause tissue necrosis that can lead to death. Lithium batteries, on the other hand, don’t contain corrosive compounds, but if they become lodged in the dog’s esophagus, electro chemical effects can also lead to tissue necrosis and even perforation of the esophagus. It can happen very rapidly, too – just 15 minutes of contact with the esophagus from a lithium battery as small as 3 volts can be life-threatening.
Thank God my dog didn’t eat a lithium battery – Stephen’s clinic is about half an hour away from where I live, and it was longer on that night because of the storm.
The other danger comes from the battery casing. It can contain heavy metals like silver, lithium, zinc and lead, and can also fragment and lodge in the intestinal tract. When this happens, the threat comes from the toxicity of heavy metals as well as the possibility of perforation from the metal shards. It’s generally a safe bet that if the metal fragments haven’t moved in 24-48 hours, they’re not going to, and that’s when surgery is warranted.
If Leroy’s x-ray had come back showing metal in his digestive tract, I would have been in for a heck of a lot more than the hundreds of dollars his little escapade cost me. Of course I would never put a price on Leroy’s life, and would have had the surgery done no matter the cost (in the thousands, according to Stephen), but I’m definitely relieved that it didn’t come to that – not just for Leroy’s sake, but because we humble writers aren’t exactly made of money.
Did Your Dog Eat a Battery? How Can You Tell?
Determining whether or not your dog ate a battery is not all that tricky. Usually, it plays out pretty much as it did with Leroy – the dog is found with a damaged battery, or a device that has been chewed and is missing its battery. However, if you don’t actually see a damaged battery or a mangled device sans battery, you should also suspect battery toxicity if your dog has grayish or black material on his teeth and/or gums, or if, as Leroy did, he yaks up a quantity of black material.
Usually, you’ll see signs very early on, although sometimes they can be delayed for 12 or more hours. Even if you don’t see unusual material in your dog’s mouth, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t ingested the battery. It might just mean that he had a good drink of water and washed down all, or most, of the material. Additional signs could include retching, coughing or gagging. As the condition progresses, the dog might vomit up something that looks like coffee grounds, pass bloody stools and run a fever.
The most important thing I can tell you about treatment if your dog ate a battery is, seek it immediately. Your dog’s life could be at stake. If you need after-hours treatment, get it. If you have to wait for a ride to the veterinary clinic, irrigate your dog’s mouth and the surrounding skin with warm water. Try to find as much of the battery as you can – you might be able to sort of piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle, and determine that way if your dog has ingested any of the metal parts. Do not try to make the dog vomit – the stomach isn’t exactly the best place for corrosive compounds, but it’s better-equipped to handle them than the esophagus.
When you get to the clinic, if you can’t account for all the fragments, the vet will take x-rays to determine where the battery fragments are located. If they’re in the esophagus, the vet will likely use a tool called an endoscope to remove them if it can be done safely. Otherwise, he or she will use the endoscope to push the fragments down into the stomach where they can be more safely removed surgically. This is also the preferred treatment if a lithium battery has been swallowed whole, and has become lodged in the esophageal folds. As I’ve mentioned, the big problem with a lithium battery is that it takes very little time for it to kill the esophageal tissue, so time is of the essence, and the battery needs either to be extracted, or sent to the stomach to be removed.
An intact alkaline battery that is already in the stomach is less of a problem, and can be treated less aggressively. Most of the time, the battery will pass, so your vet will recommend a high-fiber diet to help the process along. You will have to examine your dog’s stool to make sure that it does pass within three or four days (and yes, you are going to have to break the stool apart if you don’t see the battery!). If it doesn’t pass, then more x-rays will be needed in order to determine exactly where the battery is located. Then, surgery will be necessary to remove thebattery before the case begins to deteriorate and places your dog at risk for heavy metal toxicity.
What if My Dog Ate Battery Acid?
Any time your dog eats a battery, there is the potential for acid ingestion. It’s pretty unlikely that your dog will actually belly up to acid of the type that you have in your car battery, although it has been known to happen. Most dogs are totally put off by the smell and taste of battery acid in large quantities.
The only time I’ve ever known of this coming even close to happening was with a visit to a neighbor we had when I was a kid. The neighbor kept goats for dairy and meat, and any time that a goat was butchered for meat, the hide was kept and made into a rug. Part of the process of tanning the hide involved the use of battery acid.
Being a curious child, I used to wander over and watch when the hides were being treated, and usually I’d take my dog, Jake, with me. One time, Jake wandered over to the tanning vat and looked like he was about to take a drink out of it. Of course I yelled “Get away from that!” but Jake wasn’t listening. He wanted to investigate.
The investigation came to nothing, though, because Jake took one sniff of the acid solution, sneezed, and backed away.
I think that this is what is most likely to happen when a dog comes into contact with a large quantity of battery acid.
Battery acid can be ingested when your dog eats or chews on a battery, but it’s highly unlikely to happen when battery acid is present in large quanties. Small quantities, though, can be ingested fairly easily if your dog decides to chew up an electronic gadget, toy or other device that contains batteries. The Pet Poison Helpline reports that the most commonly consumed batteries are alkaline dry cell batteries, such as AA and AAA household batteries, and small button/disc shaped batteries.
So although you don’t likely have to worry about your dog slurping down on a vat of battery acid, it’s worth noting that when batteries are chewed, acid is released, and it can still be enough that it can cause serious health problems. Batteries commonly contain sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, both of which will severely damage any tissues they come into contact with. Tissue necrosis is a common side effect of battery acid ingestion and causes severe ulcers. Ingestion of a disc-shaped battery can result in electric currents passing through your dog’s system and can damage the tissues of the mouth, stomach, esophagus and intestines. Lithium batteries can cause significant tissue damage in as little as 15 to 30 minutes after being consumed.
Symptoms of Battery Acid Poisoning
If you suspect that your dog has consumed battery acid, don’t wait to take him to the vet. Battery acid poisoning is insidious – it can sneak up on a dog 12 hours after the dog eats the battery. Never assume that just because your dog doesn’t appear to be sick immediately after eating a battery, that he won’t get sick later.
The following are symptoms of battery acid toxicity:
- Salivating or drooling
- Inflammation or sores on the gums
- Excessive licking
- Loss of appetite
If your dog displays any of these symptoms, and you have any reason to think that he might have come into contact with battery acid, don’t waste any time getting him to a veterinarian. His life could be at stake.
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The Final Word
If your dog eats a battery, don’t panic. Although there is the potential for harm, most dogs who ingest batteries suffer few or no consequences. It’s not something that you want to take chances with, though, because there are so many variables involved.
I was very lucky with Leroy. He hadn’t ingested any metal, and even though he did consume a fair quantity of corrosive material, he’d eaten beforehand, so the dog food probably absorbed a fair bit of it, and when he vomited it all came up. I ended up out a huge chunk of change and my slippers were ruined, but I guess I can make more money if I take on more work, and I can replace my slippers. I could never replace Leroy. As Stephen pointed out, “It could have been a hell of a lot worse.”
So, although you shouldn’t panic if your dog “pulls a Leroy,” you also shouldn’t sit around and wait for the signs of battery toxicity to appear. The symptoms might not be present right away, and once they do appear it might not take long for what can be a manageable situation to become life-threatening. Get your dog to the vet.