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Garbage Eaters and Botulism

Some dogs just can’t keep away from anything that even remotely looks and smells like food (or that was food several days ago).

Apart from the potential for obesity, garbage eating canines run the risk of developing several conditions:

  1. Pancreatitis – often from excess fat ingestion (grease from the BBQ etc).
  2. Intestinal obstruction – corn cobs are a classic example, the sharp “hairs” on chewed cobs often adhering to the bowel wall, blocking the gut and requiring removal by surgery.
  3. Enteritis, gastroenteritis and constipation – the latter often the result of eating wool at lamb marking, for example, or a heavy feed of bones.
  4. Botulism


One of the more unusual impacts of garbage eating in dogs is botulism, caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which produces one of the most potent toxins known to affect animals and humans. Seen more often in cattle that have eaten decaying hay or grain, or that chew bones in phosphorous-deficient country, the botulinum toxin can affect any animal species, including humans.

The botulinum toxin is found in contaminated vegetation, decaying food, carrion and soil. In dogs, the causative factor is often ingestion of a rotting bird.

The toxin binds to nerve endings, interrupting normal nerve/muscle pathways. A weak, floppy hind limb gait is often the first sign, the paralysis usually progressing until the animal is unable to stand. The muscle paralysis also affects the animal’s ability to chew and swallow. In cattle, tongue paralysis may be a feature, with the animal unable to pull their tongue back into their mouth.

Our vets recently diagnosed botulism in a pet dog known for her indiscriminate eating habits. The owners knew she had eaten a dead bird a number of days before signs were obvious, and that history pointed to the diagnosis. The young female crossbred was presented with a stilted gait, weakness and drooling – typical early signs of the disease. As the disease progressed, the paralysis moved up the body and within 24 hours she was unable to stand.


There is no specific treatment for botulism, but animals can recover on antibiotics and supportive therapy including intravenous fluids.

Our patient is still slowly recovering 2 weeks later, but she should now make a full recovery. Other animals are not so fortunate, and much depends on the amount of toxin ingested.

Prevention is far better than treating the disease and the owners of the pet treated at CVH are aware they must start monitoring and controlling her eating habits.