What dose of activated charcoal will help my pet?
I want to state upfront that giving activated charcoal at the veterinary clinic is frequently helpful. It is used in many situations to help prevent the absorption of many different poisons. However, giving your pet charcoal pills at home is ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Somewhere along the line, owners started to relate the activated charcoal at the clinic with the charcoal pills used for flatulence at home. Either as a money-saving trend or to start on helpful treatments immediately, the tablets became something to keep in your at-home safety kits.
The truth of the matter is, there are a number of reasons that over-the-counter charcoal is dangerous for your pet. Much like inducing vomiting at home, charcoal is one of those treatments that are not right for every situation.
1. The dose for OTC activated charcoal is wrong
One pill is not going to be helpful at all. Depending on what your pet ingested, it could actually be harmful. For some poisons and some pets, charcoal is a big no-no!
A brief search online tells me that the average over-the-counter activated charcoal pill is about 250-280 milligrams. According to the ASPCA, the appropriate dose for an animal receiving charcoal at the clinic is 1-3 grams per kilogram. That’s not 1-3 grams per pet, but 1-3 grams per kilograms of body weight.
Even on the low-end dose, this is almost 43 pills of activated charcoal in an average cat (please don’t actually try this. I joke, but it could be dangerous to your pet or your hands). Instead of one quick dose, you’d have to be pouring them a bowl of charcoal kibble. Or if you have a cat, you will be chasing down 43 pills that your cat spat out on the carpet. Or worse!
2. You can actually poison your pet with activated charcoal
I know I just finished saying that the dose is too small to help. However, there are times when even a little is too much. Any amount of charcoal can cause some serious side effects for your pet.
The whole premise behind charcoal is that it binds and absorbs things. It also absorbs water. When introducing charcoal to your pet’s system, it starts to pull the fluids from your pet’s body into the stomach. This can lead to a condition called hypernatremia, or excess body sodium.
Signs of excess sodium include stumbling around (ataxia), tremors, and seizures. At a vet clinic, vets will closely monitor activated charcoal administration with blood work to ensure that electrolytes do not change. They are also familiar with the poisons that charcoal worsens, and they know when to avoid giving it.
3. Veterinary-strength activated charcoal contains a cathartic
A cathartic is a medication that helps your pet to poop. Although activated charcoal binds to certain toxins, it will eventually break down and release the poison. While bound, the toxin cannot absorb into the body. Once it is released, the poisonous substance is free to pass through the lining of the stomach. A cathartic will help clear both the charcoal and the poison out of the body through excretion so that it doesn’t have another chance to absorb.
Over-the-counter activated charcoal does not contain a cathartic, so this very important part of the process is missing from pills at home.
Whenever your vet examines or evaluates your pet, they are doing so on an individual basis. They take in factors like age, breed, type of poison, risk factors, etc. Every poisoning needs to be handled in a similar manner. As each poison and each pet is different, the treatments also must be different.