Paint and Varnish Poison Alert for Dogs and Cats

By Renee Schmid, DVM, DABVT, DABT; Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT; Colleen M. Almgren, DVM, PhD

What are paints and varnishes?

Paints, varnishes, and stains are available in a wide variety of formulations, many of which are dangerous to dogs and cats.

Water-based paints include latex, acrylic, tempera, and poster paints. Oil-based paints are typically used where more durable coverage is required. Varnish and stains are wood sealants or pigments made from a combination of resins, oils, and solvents.

Why are paints and varnishes dangerous to dogs and cats?

Pets are naturally curious. They may walk through freshly painted or varnished areas and chew on or lick paint/varnish and supplies. If paint or varnish gets on the pet's skin, fur, or paws, small amounts can be ingested while self-grooming. Inhalation of fumes may occur when pets are enclosed in poorly ventilated areas that have been recently painted/varnished or contain open containers of paint or varnish.

Lead-based paint is the most serious health concern in pets. Lead-based paints have been banned in the United States since 1978, but they are not regulated in all countries. Older buildings, painted products from non-regulated countries, and some oil-based artists' paints may contain led. Ingestion of lead-based paint can cause gastrointestinal irritation, neurologic effects, and interfere with red blood cell production. Poisoning most commonly occurs when pets chew on surfaces containing lead-based paint or ingest flakes or chips of peeling paint. While a single ingestion of lead-based paint can result in poisoning, repeatedly ingesting dried paint is more likely to result in serious effects. Pets are often sentinels for lead exposure in the home. If a pet is diagnosed with lead poisoning, the humans in the household should likely be tested as well.

In most cases, water-based paints are unlikely to cause more than gastrointestinal upset or skin irritation. Some latex paints contain low concentrations of ethylene glycol (anti-freeze). Ingestion of very large amounts of these paints can cause gastrointestinal upset, neurologic signs and even kidney failure.

Oil-based paints and varnishes contain solvents that can be inhaled into the lungs and cause difficulty breathing. Vomiting and diarrhea are also commonly associated with the ingestion of oil-based paints.

All paints and varnishes have the potential to release fumes which can cause respiratory and eye irritation when present in poorly ventilated areas.

How much paint or varnish is poisonous to dogs and cats?

A small taste or touch of paint is unlikely to cause significant symptoms. Unless the paint contains heavy metals, it is rare that a pet would drink enough undiluted paint to cause serious poisoning. A chip of lead-based paint that is the size of a thumbnail can contain 50-200mg of lead. This is enough to cause poisoning in dogs that weight up to 20 pounds. Eating several chips of paint can easily poison a dog the size of a Labrador Retriever. Pregnant animals or young animals are at a greater risk for lead poisoning.

What do I do if my dog or cat eats paint/varnish or inhales paint/varnish fumes?

If you suspect that your pet has been exposed to paint or varnish, contact your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline, a 24/7 animal poison control center at 1-800-213-6680 immediately for treatment recommendations.

Never attempt to induce vomiting or administer medications to your pet unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian. Attempting to induce vomiting may cause paint/varnish to be inhaled into the lungs, resulting in much more serious complications.

Rinsing your pet’s mouth with lukewarm water, encouraging your pet to drink water, or offering a small snack may be helpful to dilute the paint or varnish in the stomach and reduce the risk of stomach upset.

Paint/varnish on the skin or fur can be washed off with mild liquid dish soap or carefully trimmed with clippers. Scissors should not be used, because you risk cutting the skin. Never use paint thinners, mineral spirits, or other products on the skin without consulting your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline first. These products can cause severe skin irritation and pain. In most cases, leaving some paint on the fur is preferred to causing further injury.

What are the signs of paint poisoning in a dog or cat?

Signs of toxicity depend upon the type of paint or varnish ingested. The most common signs are vomiting, diarrhea, depression, and lack of appetite. If paint or varnish is aspirated into the lungs, pets may develop fast or labored breathing and a purple or blue color to the gums.

With very large ingestions of ethylene glycol-containing paints, pets may develop lethargy, incoordination, and tremors They may also stop eating, drink more or less than usual, and have increased or decreased urination. However, the ethylene glycol concentrations of these types of paints is typically quite low and ingesting a toxic amount would be rare.

Pets that ingest lead-based paints may have vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, a drunken gait, tremors, seizures, blindness, weakness, pale gums, increased heart rate, and difficulty breathing.

How will my veterinarian diagnose paint poisoning?

Most cases are diagnosed in pets that have the expected signs and a known or suspected exposure to paint or varnish. Chest radiographs may be needed to look for evidence of paint or varnish aspiration into the lungs. Abdominal radiographs to look for lead in the stomach and intestines may be recommended. Blood work may be performed to evaluate kidney function, assess red blood cells, or determine lead levels.

Is there an antidote for paint toxicity in pets?

An antidote for most paint and varnish ingestion is not available or necessary. If lead poisoning occurs due to paint ingestion, drugs called chelating agents can be used to bind the lead and allow it to be removed from the body. In the rare case that enough paint was ingested to cause ethylene glycol poisoning, early treatment with a drug called fomepizole or ethanol can prevent damage to the kidneys.

How should an animal with paint exposure or poisoning be treated?

Treatment for paint exposure depends upon the type and amount of paint ingested.

Induction of vomiting following ingestion of paint and/or varnish is not recommended. Vomiting increases the chance that paint can be inhaled into the lungs and cause difficulty breathing.

Pets that develop vomiting or diarrhea are often treated with fluids under the skin, anti-nausea medication, probiotics, or gastrointestinal protectants. If severe gastrointestinal or respiratory signs occur, hospitalization with intravenous (IV) fluids, antibiotics, and/or oxygen supplements may be necessary.

In the rare case that enough paint was ingested to cause ethylene glycol poisoning, hospitalization will be needed. Treatments often include intravenous fluids, ethanol or fomepizole, dextrose supplementation, and monitoring of blood work to assess kidney function.

Treatment for lead poisoning depends upon the signs that develop. Intravenous fluids, anti-nausea medication, gastrointestinal protectants, muscle relaxants and medications to control seizures may be used. Drugs to bind lead and allow its removal from the body (chelating agents) are often necessary.

Can pets recover from paint poisoning?

Full recovery is expected following most paint or varnish exposures. Pets that develop lead poisoning or ingest ethylene glycol- containing paint may develop more serious complications. Even in these cases, the outlook for full recovery is good with early treatment. Delayed treatment can cause long-term organ damage and even death.

How can paint or varnish poisoning be prevented?

Store paint and varnish products in closed containers out of the pet’s reach. Do not leave paint/varnish or items coated with wet paint/varnish where unattended pets are present. Curious pets may explore containers and painting supplies. It is not uncommon for pets to chew through closed containers or chew on paint brushes and other painting supplies. Keep in mind that pets can get on counters or knock items off counters and tables. Do not assume a pet will avoid eating the paint/varnish just because it has a bad taste. If paint or varnish is spilled, confine all pets in another area of the home until the product has been cleaned up. Assure the area where the paint/varnish was used is well ventilated and odor-free prior to allowing pets back into the area. Pay close attention to curious young animals and especially cats who can jump and climb on higher surfaces. Home remodeling may expose lead-based paint dust and chips that these animals find irresistible to ingest.

Prevention of lead poisoning from paint requires careful attention to the home environment. In older homes, be sure to remove any loose paint, paint, chips or paint dust from areas to which the pet will be exposed. Home test kits to assess for lead paint are available. If lead paint is detected, consider a certified risk assessment to determine whether properly maintaining the paint in place or complete removal of the lead-based paint is most appropriate. Removal of lead-based paint should not be attempted without proper training and protection.

Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, MN is available 24/7 for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline’s per incident fee includes follow-up consultations for the duration of the poison case. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at

Related Articles