Treating Your Pet at Home with Activated Charcoal

Are activated charcoal pills helpful to my pet?

Treatment with Activated Charcoal

Even the cute ones don't taste good!

I want to state up front that giving activated charcoal at the veterinary clinic is useful, and used in many situations to help prevent the absorption of a poison.  However, giving your pet charcoal pills at home is far less effective 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, these little doses that are approved for human consumption are not something you want to give to your pets after a poisoning for a number of reasons.


Too much Activated Charcoal

I dare you to give me all 43 of those pills

1. The dose is wrong

One pill is not going to be helpful at all, and 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 (with some slight variance), the average over-the-counter activated charcoal pill is about 250-280 milligrams.  According to the ASPCA, the appropriate dose for an animal receiving a charcoal dose 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). Instead of one quick dose, you’d have to be pouring them a bowl of charcoal kibble, or if you have a cat, chasing down 43 pills that have been spit out on the carpet. Or worse!


After Pilling a Cat

The earliest recorded mummies were actually people who did not survive medicating their felines

2. You can actually poison your pet with charcoal

I know I just got done saying that the dose is too small to be helpful, so I have to play devil’s advocate for a moment.  Any amount of charcoal could 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, the administration of activated charcoal is closely monitored with blood work to ensure that this does not become a problem. They are also familiar with the poisons that will be made worse by charcoal, and know when to avoid giving it.

3. Charcoal at a clinic is given with 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 a chance to absorb later.

Over-the-counter activated charcoal does not contain a cathartic, so this very important part of the process is missing from pills at home.

Where poisons belong

This is where poisons belong

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.

There is only one action you can take at home with your pet and be 100% right 100% of the time – calling your vet or a poison control center.

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