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Antifreeze Toxicity – What You Should Know

Antifreeze Toxicity – What You Should Know

by Ben J. Character, DVM


Traditionally, antifreeze used in engines contains the chemical ethylene glycol (EG).  If EG is ingested by an animal, it can cause serious damage and/or death.

Surprisingly, it is the by-products of the EG metabolism, not the EG itself, that is toxic.  Because of this, the effects of EG toxicity are usually not seen immediately after ingestion.  Clinical signs of toxicity will usually be seen within the first 24 hours after ingestion.  At first, there will be signs of incoordination and lethargy in the animal, which looks like intoxication and a lack of energy.  This will proceed to a coma-like state, which then ends in death.

The good news is that there is now a test your veterinarian can use to check for an ingestion of EG.  The test must be done within the first 12 hours after suspected EG ingestion.

Treatment of EG has also dramatically improved in the past few years.  There is now available a drug that fights the toxin, and helps the body remove it.  If started early enough, most permanent damage can be avoided.  Before the availability of this drug, treatment of EG toxicity was very limited.  The standard treatment was ethanol (more commonly known as drinking alcohol) given intravenously.

Antifreeze toxicity can be prevented.  If you are changing antifreeze, or working on an engine that must be drained, catch the antifreeze in a bucket and remove it from access of pets.  If a spill occurs, wash the area thoroughly with water. The addition of the water dilutes the antifreeze, therefore decreasing the potency.   There are also new generation antifreeze solutions that are not composed of ethylene glycol.  These may be used in place of the EG antifreeze.