Activated charcoal is a popular product with many uses, ranging from water purification to potentially life-saving veterinary treatment. If your dog ingests a poison there is a high chance that your vet will give them a form of activated charcoal to help to remove it. It can also help to remove certain drugs from your dog’s bloodstream.
Dog activated charcoal is available as several FDA-approved products. These include ToxiBan, Liqui-Char-Vet, and UAA Gel. Your vet may use one of these products if your dog ingests something poisonous. While it is generally safe to give a dog activated charcoal, it is very important to ask your vet before trying to treat poisoning. There are several reasons for this, which will cover later on. Ready to find out more? Read on with us!
What is Activated Charcoal
Activated carbon is a form of carbon with tiny, low-volume pores that increase its surface area. This makes it more available for adsorption and chemical reactions. Activated carbon usually comes from activated charcoal, hence the more commonly used name “activated charcoal.” So, to clarify, activated carbon and activated charcoal are the same product. This type of carbon has many uses. These uses include air purification, water purification, decaffeination, metal extraction, and alcohol filtration, among many others.
Because activated charcoal has to be made, you cannot find it naturally in any foods. You can buy activated charcoal as a powder to mix with a liquid, or even as a tablet or capsule. For humans, you may find facial wipes, toothpaste, “detox” drinks, and black ice creams containing activated charcoal. And, for dogs, you may come across dog treats or de-odorizers containing activated charcoal. The bottom line is that activated charcoal is extremely popular and readily available. But what can it do for our furry friends?
What is Activated Charcoal Used For With Dogs
Using charcoal for medicinal purposes has a long history. This extends to veterinary medicine, too. Activated charcoal has US Food and Drug Administration approval for veterinary use. For veterinary use, this type of charcoal is pharmaceutical grade. The following charcoal products are available in the US for veterinary use: ToxiBan, Liqui-Char-Vet, and UAA Gel. But what are the uses of activated charcoal? Just how effective is it?
Activated charcoal is an important ingredient in the emergency treatment of acute poisoning in dogs. Its effectiveness depends on the time since ingestion, the type of toxin, and the lethality of the dose. The charcoal must be given as soon as possible, while a significant amount of the toxin remains unabsorbed. If given within one hour after ingestion of a toxin, activated charcoal can reduce toxin absorption by 75%. However, it has its limits. Activated charcoal is ineffective at absorbing inorganic toxins, such as ammonia, fluoride, cyanide, iodide, and sodium chloride. It is also ineffective against heavy metals like arsenic and copper, corrosive and caustic acids, petroleum products, small polar molecules like alcohols, and metaldehyde. Activated charcoal is somewhat effective at absorbing xylitol, but only by 8% to 23%.
So, to summarize the toxins that activated charcoal is effective against:
- Algal poisoning
- Blister beetle poisoning
- Raisins, grapes, Zante currants
- Coal-tar poisoning
- Macadamia nuts
- Human medicines like painkillers, antidepressants, and beta-blockers
This type of charcoal is also effective at removing drugs from the bloodstream through a process called hemoperfusion. The blood goes through a cartridge containing charcoal, which adsorbs the drug before the blood returns to the dog. This can reduce the dog’s recovery time and can change the morbidity in severely comatose dogs.
Benefits of Activated Charcoal
Activated charcoal has several beneficial properties. First and foremost, activated charcoal is non-toxic for dogs. In animal studies, doses higher than 15,000mg/kg caused no fatalities. It may also have no effect on pregnancy as the body does not absorb it, making it an all-around safe option for your vet to use for your pooch. And, most importantly, this substance is great at removing harmful compounds from the body. It is very effective at absorbing bacterial endotoxins that cause diarrhea, as well as the bleach, opium, cocaine, and acetaminophen.
As well as this, activated charcoal has such a large surface area that a small amount is often all one needs. Just one gram of activated carbon has a surface area greater than 3,000 m2 (32,000 sq ft). This, along with the charcoal’s many pores, makes it highly effective for removing toxins from the body. In line with this, activated carbon is a stool marker. It indicates that the toxin has come out from the gastrointestinal tract and that no further significant toxin absorption will occur. And, lastly, this form of carbon is very accessible and is easy to get hold of.
So, to summarize the benefits of activated charcoal:
- Non-toxic to dogs
- Suitable for most dog life stages
- Removes toxic substances and bacteria from the body
- Has a large surface area, so small doses are beneficial
- Acts as a stool marker
- Accessible and inexpensive
Downsides of Activated Charcoal
Although activated charcoal is non-toxic to dogs, it can produce adverse effects. With multiple doses of charcoal, some dogs will suffer from constipation. As well as this, aspiration of charcoal into the lungs is also a risk when given through a syringe. This can cause airway obstructions. Although unlikely to occur, spillage of the charcoal into the eyes may also cause corneal abrasions. In young dogs, a large dose of a sorbitol-containing charcoal product can cause serious fluid shifts to the intestine. This results in severe dehydration, diarrhea, and seizures. Because of this, your vet will need to monitor your dog’s serum sodium levels for 2 to 3 hours after giving them charcoal and sorbitol.
Although charcoal is great for adsorbing some toxins, it is not effective for all of them. It is ineffective for several inorganic toxins like ammonia, cyanide, iodide, and fluoride. It is also ineffective for heavy metals like lithium, copper, and arsenic. Similarly, it is ineffective against corrosive and caustic acids, petroleum products, alcohols, and metaldehyde. It is somewhat effective against xylitol, but only by 8% to 23% in vitro.
To summarize the downsides of activated charcoal:
- Side effects include constipation and diarrhea
- Risk of aspiration through syringes
- Ineffective against inorganic toxins, heavy metals, caustic acids, etc
Efficacy of Activated Charcoal
In one dog study, an oral dose of activated charcoal 30 minutes after a dose of carprofen effectively decreased the plasma carprofen concentration by reducing its absorption into the gastrointestinal tract.
Another canine study found that adding dog food to activated charcoal may reduce the efficacy of the charcoal. However, the author notes that these findings are unlikely to be clinically significant.
However, apart from this, there are few studies on the efficacy of charcoal for dogs. This brings us to human studies, which are also few and far between. According to a 1976 study, paracetamol absorption may reduce by 83% when activated charcoal is given within five minutes. There are very few studies to show the efficacy of charcoal after more than one hour has passed.
Clinical trials on poison patients would be useful in the future, but there are major difficulties in carrying these out. The number of patients required would be very large, and there are obvious ethical issues with waiting more than one hour to administer the potentially life-saving activated charcoal. As such, many human studies involve healthy volunteers and focus on the efficacy of charcoal within one hour.
Your vet may give your dog activated charcoal through a syringe or a feeding tube. Firstly, your vet will mix dry charcoal with water to make a slurry or will use a pre-made mixture for your dog. Your vet may give this mixture through a large syringe into the mouth, or through a stomach tube through the nose or mouth. In cases where your vet uses a syringe, they will need to take care to avoid aspiration into the lungs. Following the charcoal dose, your vet may also give a cathartic or osmotic drug. This speeds up the process and is given 30 minutes after the first dose of charcoal. Your vet may give another dose or two of charcoal at one or two-hour intervals.
Activated Charcoal For Dogs: FAQ
Have any more questions or concerns about activated charcoal for dogs? Feel free to check in with our Frequently Asked Questions for more details. As always, contact your vet for advice if your dog is unwell.
Activated charcoal is non-toxic for dogs, so it’s generally safe for a dog to ingest. However, your intent when giving your dog activated charcoal matters. Has your dog ingested a toxin that needs removing? If so, do not attempt to treat your dog’s toxicosis at home.
Not all toxins bind to charcoal and the dose that your dog needs will depend on several factors that you can’t measure at home. By giving your dog activated charcoal at home, without a vet’s approval, you risk your dog not getting the veterinary treatment they need and potentially risk their life. If your dog needs activated charcoal because they’ve eaten something they shouldn’t, go to your vet.
The sooner the charcoal is given after ingesting the toxin, the better it works. In general, though, activated charcoal starts to work its magic within 30 to 60 minutes. Because of this, it’s important to get the charcoal into your dog’s system within an hour of them ingesting the toxin – the wait after this time could be fatal.
The number of doses that your dog needs depends on several things. These include the type of toxin, how much was ingested, and your dog’s condition after the first dose of charcoal. Your vet may give one or two more doses if your dog’s condition does not significantly improve.
The time frame for charcoal’s beneficial effects to pass is typically less than one hour, so any further doses should be given after one hour or more. And, when giving multiple doses, only the first dose should contain a cathartic drug to speed up the process.
Although activated charcoal is not toxic to dogs, it can cause side effects. The adverse effects of activated charcoal include constipation, dehydration, diarrhea, tremors, and seizures. However, these side effects are rare and are most common in younger dogs. Because charcoal is often paired with a cathartic drug, it is also appropriate to mention the side effects of cathartics, too.
The side effects of cathartics include vomiting, abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, dehydration, hypernatremia, and hypotension. Serious side effects can occur if your dog receives more than one cathartic dose, including severe dehydration, hypermagnesemia, and electrolyte imbalances. As such, it is not appropriate to give a cathartic drug to a dog with renal disease, dehydration, or diarrhea.
Just because activated charcoal is non-toxic for dogs, it does not mean that it’s suitable for every dog. For example, dogs with heavy metal poisoning will not benefit from charcoal. As well as this, charcoal is often given alongside cathartics, which themselves are not always safe for every dog. A cathartic drug can be dangerous for dogs with renal disease, dehydration, diarrhea, or those who have been fasted.
You must contact your vet if your dog becomes unwell after eating something toxic. This information is for general reference only and does not contain all of the possible uses, precautions, and reactions that may occur.