Dogs are naturally curious creatures with an instinctual prey drive. So if a toad hops its way into the bushes around your backyard, your dog might want to investigate — commonly with their mouth. Many toad toxins are mild, but if you live in a state in the southwestern part of the United States, you may encounter the Sonoran Desert toad (Incilius alvarius), also known as the Colorado River toad. They’re common in this part of the country, especially during monsoon season (June to December). Here’s what to know about Sonoran toads and dogs, including how to keep your dog safe.
Where Are Sonoran Desert Toads Found?
This species is native to areas along the Colorado and Gila Rivers, particularly in southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico. This toad is also endemic (meaning it’s found in one particular area) to some northern states in Mexico. Though the Sonoran Desert toad was previously found in California, experts now believe it to be extinct in this region.
These semiaquatic amphibians often live near water. So be careful if you have a backyard pond where toads might lay their eggs, since you don’t want Sonoran toads and dogs to get too close. Their nocturnal habits mean you’re more likely to spot them after dusk. While you might see Sonoran Desert toads anytime from May to September, they’re most active during the July and August breeding season, especially during heavy summer rainstorms.
How to Identify Sonoran Desert Toads
Handily, the Sonoran Desert toad is the largest native toad in the United States, so it makes it easier to spot. Long-lived adults can grow to be over 7.5 inches long. The soft, leathery skin on their body is olive-brown. They typically have a distinctive, protruding white wart on each side of their jaw. Their hind legs also have noticeable white glands. Along the kidney-shaped glands behind their eyes, these areas secrete creamy white toxins when the toads feel threatened.
These toads are toxic throughout their life stages, but juvenile Sonoran Desert toads aren’t so distinctive. Sometimes, they can be confused for much less toxic red-spotted toads (Bufo punctatus). Juveniles have light warts against dark spots.
What Happens if a Dog Licks or Ingests a Sonoran Desert Toad?
The Sonoran Desert toad is one of the American two species of toads most toxic to dogs. The Bufo toad (Rhinella marina) is even more toxic, but it is only present in Hawaii, parts of Texas, and South and Central Florida.
Dr. Renee Schmid is the senior veterinary toxicologist at the Pet Poison Helpline. She explains that Sonoran Desert toad venom contains specific toxins, including bufadienolides and bufotenin, which can cause severe effects on the heart and nervous system.
Symptoms of Sonoran Desert Toad Poisoning in Dogs
The first sign you might have that your dog has licked or ingested a Sonoran Desert toad is significant drooling and frothing at the mouth. These symptoms often come within seconds of your dog having touched the toad.
“Additional signs include bright red gums, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, difficulty walking, inability to stand, seizures, an increase or decrease in heart rate, arrhythmias, and low blood pressure,” she says.
The severity of the symptoms depends on the size of the dog, their overall health, the extent of their exposure to the toad and its toxins, and the toad’s size. In severe cases, exposure can lead to death.
What to Do if Your Dog Licks or Ingests a Sonoran Desert Toad
If you suspect your dog has been exposed to a Sonoran Desert toad, get your dog veterinary attention right away. Call your vet to establish if they can provide crisis support or if you should go to the nearest emergency animal hospital.
Dr. Schmid advises rinsing the dog’s mouth with cool water for five to 10 minutes to flush out the poison. You don’t want a pet aspirating (inhaling the water), so she recommends only doing what your dog will tolerate and then bringing them to a veterinary facility right away. To prevent water from entering your dog’s lungs or airways, keep your dog’s muzzle pointing downwards while rinsing it out. Angle the hose so that the water starts at the back of the mouth before flowing out the front.
If you’re using water from the garden hose, always let it run a little first, especially on a hot day when the water in the pipe could be hot. If your dog won’t tolerate you rinsing their mouth, or they aren’t fully conscious, thoroughly wipe the inside and outside of their mouth with a wet, clean rag or towel.
Try to snap a quick photo if the toad is still in place. This will help your veterinarian to confirm whether your dog is suffering from Sonoran Desert toad poisoning or if the toad belongs to a less toxic species.
How to Treat Sonoran Desert Toad Poisoning in Dogs
Unfortunately, there isn’t an antidote for Sonoran Desert toad poisoning. However, prompt and aggressive symptomatic and supportive care is often successful.
“Intravenous fluids can be given to help with hydration, antiemetics will help with vomiting, and medication for neurological and cardiovascular — heart — signs are necessary,” Dr. Schmid says. If your dog ingested any part of the toad, an endoscopy (which allows examination of internal organs like the digestive tract) or surgery may also be necessary.
Dr. Schmid explains that pets suffering from severe cardiovascular signs often don’t survive. “Prognosis is very guarded with aggressive care and poor when care is delayed or not provided,” she says. So, the sooner you can get your dog to a veterinary facility, the better.
Tips to Protect Dogs From Sonoran Desert Toads
During Sonoran Desert toad season, the best way to protect your dog is to be vigilant and supervise them more closely. Keep your dog on a short leash on late-night and sunrise walks, especially when it’s raining. Using a leash in the garden might also be helpful if your dog is prone to sniffing around the bushes or other damp, dark spots where toads may hide.
Don’t leave your dog’s water bowl outside, either. Dogs can suffer from Sonoran Desert toad poisoning if they drink water that a toad has been in. So it’s important to refresh the contents of your pet’s water bowl regularly, especially if it’s been left outside.
You can also take steps to keep Sonoran toads and dogs from getting too close together. These include:
Reduce hiding spots by regularly trimming your lawn and keeping shrub beds tidy.
Toads love meals of ants, crickets, and other bugs. Make your yard less attractive to bugs by sealing trash cans and removing other potential toad food sources.
Get rid of any pools of stagnant water.
Try to avoid using outside lights after dark. These lights attract bugs, which attract toads.
Create a chicken-wire barrier around the perimeter of your yard. A fence that is at least 1.5 feet high and is buried well into the ground should help stop toads from hopping in.