Posted on: December 31, 2022 Posted by: Petsynse Comments: 0

I’ve got a confession to make. My dog’s name is Billie, and Billie’s an addict.

She’s a fiend for the old Rhinella marina, the hopping golf ball — cane toads.

I first heard about this behaviour from friends. Their dog, a basenji-cattle-dog-cross called Kazi, would mouth toads for the milky-white poison they produce in the glands behind their head.

Kazi’s human parents could tell when she’d been on the toads, as they’d often find her on her back, legs in the air, lying in their queen-sized bed, eyeing off the ceiling.

But I’d assumed theirs was an isolated, or at least rare, case.

Then I noticed Billie, our border-collie-cattle-dog-cross, making herself scarce of an evening. 

A cane toad with white poison behind its head.
Cane toads secrete poison from glands behind their head as a defence mechanism.(Getty Images: Click48)

She’d come back in, looking sheepish, and with all the symptoms of a ’90s raver at sunrise — pinned pupils, drooling, sloppy grin.

It didn’t take long to find out where she was going. Like Kazi, she was on the amphibians. Where had I gone wrong?

It turns out it’s pretty common.

“It’s definitely a thing,” says animal pathologist and toxicologist Rachel Allavena from the University of Queensland.

So what’s going on?


Broadly, Professor Allavena says there are two types of behaviours that lead to dogs getting poisoned by cane toads.

“Some dogs sniff them out. So the toad will be hidden, the dog can’t see them, and they’ll actively go hunting for them.

“The others will see them and chase them — it’s a visual thing.”

A dog watching a toad in water.
Working dogs are more likely to chase cane toads on sight rather than actively seek them out.(Getty Images: Avatarmin)

She says research found some behavioural patterns more typical to certain breeds, but that there are exceptions to the rule.

“The terrier-type breeds like the Jack Russells, they tend to ferret things out; they’re quite active [in their searching] and it’s generally young dogs under four years of age.

“Working dogs, they might be more visually driven. But we had dogs [getting poisoned] that I wouldn’t have picked in a million years — labradors, that sort of thing.”

And for many dogs, it’s not a once-off.

Lin Schwarzkopf, an amphibian expert and biologist from James Cook University, says she’d heard of repeat offenders going to great lengths to get to toads.

“A friend of mine who’s a vet was saying that there are dogs that people have locked up in chain-link enclosures and they’ve reached out a paw through the fence to get the toads,” Professor Schwarzkopf says.

Are they getting high?

Though it’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on in a dog’s mind, there’s fairly good evidence that they’re getting some sort of psychotropic effect from the toads.

Cane toads secrete a collection of chemical compounds known as bufadienolides, which include cardio-toxic steroids, adrenaline, and the hallucinogenic alkaloid bufotenine — a scheduled drug in Australia.

A psychedelic dog collage.
Cane toad poison includes hallucinogenic alkaloids.(Getty Images: Activedia)

The toads’ main area of poison delivery is the parotoid glands on the back of the head just behind the eyes, but poison is also found on the skin.

“It kills dogs but it can also cause hallucinations, because [we know] it causes hallucinations in people,” Professor Schwarzkopf says.

“[We] assume they must enjoy it, because there are some dogs that get ‘addicted’ to it.”

Professor Allavena says there’s a fine line between a lethal and sublethal dose.

“The thing about the cane toad patients — they’ll come in really sick and some animals do die.

“Certainly the ones I saw come into the clinic, if they weren’t really sick, they just looked high.

“They’d stare off into space, they’ve got dilated eyes, they’re not aware of their surroundings, they’re very disassociated.”

While the poison is potentially lethal, there doesn’t seem to be any negative long-term health impacts for dogs that survive, Professor Allavena adds.

“We had animals that would come in really sick and they would walk out healthy the next day.”

What do I do if my dog’s licked a toad?

If your dog has picked up the habit, what are the options?

Changing the behaviour can be very difficult, but some will grow out of it. Training or aversion therapy can be effective for some dogs.

For those that persist, there’s the option of locking them up or indoors at night when toads are more active.

But if a poisoning does occur, there are things you can do to maximise your dog’s chance of survival.

First, if you haven’t seen the toad licking occur, the symptoms to look for are:

  • salivating, possible foaming at the mouth
  • very red gums
  • shivers or tremors
  • possible paralysis
  • spasms or seizures
  • vomiting
  • pawing at the mouth
  • dilated pupils
  • difficulty breathing.

The advice in the past has been to wash the dog’s mouth out with a hose for at least 10 minutes.

But Professor Allavena says that has led to the accidental drowning of dogs by owners thinking they’re doing the right thing.

Instead, the recommendation is to use a wet cloth to wash out the mouth as thoroughly as possible.

“It’s better to get a bucket of water and scrub the gums — we recommend that people get a wet cloth and scrub the animal’s mouth out.

“[The poison] is really sticky and you’ve gotta scrub it out of there. If you can remove as much as possible … it might mean the animal is more likely to survive.”

Seeking advice or treatment from a vet is also necessary.

As for Billie, she went cold turkey over winter when the toads went into hiding.

But now the cane toads are back out in full swing, we’ll be keeping an eye out for those raver vibes, and a cloth and bucket handy.