I once saw an animated cartoon that featured two dogs standing on a sidewalk together. They were both looking at something on the ground and their conversation went something like this:
Big dog: "What is it?"
Little dog: "I dunno."
They both sniff at the thing.
Big dog: "Is it food?"
Little dog: "I dunno."
They stare at it for a few more seconds.
Little dog: "Let's eat it."
Big dog: "OK!"
They eat it. Five seconds pass as they stare at one another.
Big dog: "Man, I don't feel so good."
Little dog: "Me neither."
The scene changes to the sounds of them both getting sick.
I can think of only one thing that could improve this vignette - adding a cat. My cat would quietly observe the dogs and have only one line, at the end of the scene.
Now, if that unidentified thing on the ground had been a small, moving creature, the cat would likely have been in on the action.
Most people are well aware of dogs' scavenging tendencies, but it also is true that both dogs and cats have strong predatory instincts. This means they are hardwired to chase small, moving creatures. Most of the little animals they encounter are very small, and are relatively defenseless compared to their hunters. Except for the toads. Quiet, small, unassuming and potentially lethal - toads.
Messing with toads is ill-advised, which many animals learn the hard way, unfortunately. It takes only one episode with a toad to make a cat realize his mistake - an error most cats will not repeat. Cats have a pretty long memory for pain and nausea. Dogs ... not so much. I'm not intimating that cats are necessarily smarter than dogs - just that dogs tend to be more optimistic. Because, who knows - it might not be so bad next time. Right?
OK, so what's so bad about toads? Actually, there's a lot of good about toads. Farmers and gardeners know: toads eat a lot of insects, slugs, worms, beetles and other small pests without being pests themselves.
They tend to mind their own business, are not too noisy or destructive, don't smell and don't ask for anything except maybe a pesticide or herbicide free environment.
And with a few toads around, there may be less of a need for chemicals - one research site I visited estimated that an American toad (Bufo americanus), which is the most common toad species in Pennsylvania, can consume up to 1000 insects per day. Now, that's a work ethic! Which is one good reason toads should be left to themselves.
Like frogs and salamanders, toads are amphibians. They are cold-blooded creatures (meaning they do not have their own internal body temperature regulation) like the reptiles, but differ from reptiles in some important ways. One big difference is the skin - reptiles have dry, leathery, sometimes scaly, waterproof skin. Amphibians have slimy skin that allows moisture and air to pass through it. This makes amphibians much more susceptible to pollutants and other impurities in their water supply and in the air. Amphibians need to be near a source of water like a stream, pond or lake to complete their life cycle. Like frogs, female toads lay their eggs in the water, which are fertilized by the male after they are laid. The eggs hatch into small, swimming, legless tadpoles that, within a few short weeks, grow legs, absorb their tails and mature into the form of tiny toads.
Unlike frogs, toads do not need to remain close to a body of water for most of the year, until they return for breeding. While frogs tend to have smooth skin, toads have bumpy, warty skin. But something else sets toads apart from most frogs: toads are poisonous. No, the toxic substance will not cause you to sprout warts. That's right, read carefully: toads do not give people warts. I don't care if your grandmother told you otherwise - it's time you faced the truth.
The poison toads produce (also called venom) comes from glands that look like large bumps or warts on the skin, the largest (called parotid glands) are located just behind the eyes on the back of the head. Similar poison-secreting glands are located down the back and back legs, as well. These glands produce a milky substance that contains various noxious substances, collectively termed bufotoxins, as they are produced by members of the taxonomic genus Bufo. Each toad species has its own unique blend of these toxins, which have negative effects on the heart and blood pressure, brain (inducing hallucinations, blackouts, seizures) and GI tract (causing immediate retching and vomiting) when ingested. These substances can be very irritating to the mouth and eyes, or pre-existing wounds on the skin. And of course, can cause allergic reactions in some individuals.
Fortunately, most people don't feel compelled to put toads in their mouths. Unfortunately, many animals (on first encounter) do. Perhaps it is because toads just look so darn appetizing ... to a dog. Probably it is more of an instinctual predatory and curiosity instinct that induces animals - dogs in particular - to pick up a toad in their mouths. Whatever the reason, it happens, and the results are usually dramatic. Because the effects of the toxins can be immediate and severe, owners who witness their animal mouthing a toad should act immediately.
The usual first symptoms of toad poisoning are sudden profuse drooling, frothing at the mouth and retching or vomiting. This can quickly progress to tremors and convulsions when enough toxin is ingested. Washing the mouth of the affected animal with copious amounts of water from a hose directed out of the mouth (not down the throat) or rubbing the mouth with a moist cloth to remove the sticky toad venom will help to reduce the effects. Seeking veterinary help quickly is imperative if the symptoms do not improve within 10-15 minutes.
There is no antidote for this type of poisoning. Symptomatic and supportive treatments can be given to the animal until the effects abate.
It is important to note that frothing at the mouth and altered behavior, tremors, etc. can be signs of rabies. If your animal is not up-to-date on its rabies vaccination, or has a history of unexplained wounds in its past, it is unwise to handle its mouth at all.
This goes for animals acting aggressively also, as attempting to wash out the mouth may cause even the nicest animals to want to bite. Use common sense, please.
The scene opens with two dogs and a cat in a suburban backyard.
Big dog: "Hey, look, it's a toad!"
Little dog: "What's a toad?"
Cat: "I wouldn't mess with that if I were you."
Big dog: "He just wants it for himself - let's get it!"
Little dog: "Yeah!"
Five seconds later, both dogs are retching violently, drooling profusely and frothing at the mouth.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column prints every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.