Ethanol is in alcoholic drinks such as wine, beer and spirits. It also can be found in household products such as mouthwashes, pharmaceuticals, perfumes and disinfectants.
Although it may seem amusing to let your pet lap beer, the resulting ethanol intoxication can be extremely serious and lead to respiratory depression, cardiac arrest and death.
Part of the problem is the relative size of a dog compared to a person, and dogs can easily drink too much ethanol/alcohol compared to their body weight.
The seriousness of the effects depends on the proof percentage of the alcohol, the dog’s size and whether he drank on an empty stomach.
If your pet has ingested ethanol and has signs of being drunk, seek veterinary advice immediately because his cardiorespiratory system may be at risk of becoming dangerously depressed.
Symptoms of Ethanol Poisoning
How long signs take to develop depends on the amount of ethanol ingested and whether the dog’s stomach was empty or lined with food.
It can take just 15 to 30 minutes for a dog to show signs of intoxication on an empty stomach. After a recent meal it may take 1 to 2 hours until the ethanol is absorbed into his bloodstream.
As comical as a staggery walk appears, it actually demonstrates that the dog’s central nervous system has been affected. This may cause changes in his demeanor from depression to agitation and other effects, such as loss of bladder or bowel control.
If the dose was high relative to his body weight, there is a distinct risk that his cardiovascular system will be depressed, leading to a fall in heart rate, and his breathing will also slow down. The body enters a state called “metabolic acidosis,” where too much acid circulates in the blood, the ultimate end of which includes cardiac arrest and death.
Sources of ethanol include alcoholic drinks left within an animal’s reach (take care at party time!) but also fermenting objects such as rotting apples or even proofing bread dough.
Dogs are far more likely than cats to ingest such things out of curiosity, and therefore dogs are much more likely to suffer from ethanol intoxication.
Be aware that alcoholic drinks contain differing amounts of ethanol. The lowest is beer, with a percentage of 3 to 5%, then wine at 9 to 10% and finally spirits at anywhere between 40 and 90%.
The implication of this is that a sly lap of brandy is potentially much more serious to your Chihuahua than a slurp of beer (although, given the dog’s small size, even the latter is not recommended).
The diagnosis of ethanol poisoning can be made on the dog’s symptoms plus a high blood ethanol level. There may also be other clues on screening blood tests such as a low blood glucose level (ethanol suppresses blood sugar), raised liver enzymes (indicating organ damage) and a raised level of acid in the blood.
Treatment involves giving supportive care to the animal’s circulation with intravenous fluids.
This helps keep up the blood supply to the organs if heart function is depressed. It also helps dilute the level of ethanol in the blood and eliminate it more quickly from the system.
If the dog’s breathing is severely depressed, he may need intensive care with artificial respiration until he starts breathing again for himself, and likewise he may need medications to support his heart function, especially if he goes into cardiac arrest.
Key to prevention is being a responsible, vigilant caretaker and making sure that alcohol is kept out of reach of all pets.
If you really need a beer alternative, this video has a novel idea:
More than that, be aware that rotting fruit, proofing bread and some household products contain alcohol and may prove a temptation to more inquisitive dogs.
- Small Animal Toxicology and Poisoning. Gfeller & Messonier. Publisher: Mosby.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 17, 2018.