Animals and Environmental Exposure to Toxins

People are often concerned about their pets and livestock being exposed to toxins in the environment. Other times people may encounter wildlife that appears to have been poisoned. Animals can be exposed to environmental toxins from accidental spills, intentional poisoning, or natural sources such as harmful algal blooms. These resources can be helpful for people concerned about animals that may have been exposed to toxins in the environment.

Pets and Companion Animals

If you are concerned your pet has been exposed to something poisonous, call your vet. Common sources of poisoning for pets and companion animals are eating poisonous houseplants or outdoors plants, eating wild mushrooms, eating chocolate or other food poisonous to animals, drinking antifreeze, or eating their owner’s medication. Many pets are sensitive to things that are not harmful to humans, such as foods like chocolate, grapes, onions, and garlic. Be sure to check whether a food you want to give to your pet is safe for them to eat, and don’t bring in houseplants that are toxic to your pet.

Pets can also be poisoned from contact with lakes or rivers with harmful algal blooms. Swimming in the water, drinking it, eating algal mats, or licking fur soaked in contaminated water can poison a dog. If there is a bloom the water may be murky, discolored (often looking like green or blue-green paint), have an unpleasant smell, or have mats floating in it. However, sometimes blooms can be hard to see if harmful algal mats are growing on the bottom or on underwater objects and plants. If a body of water has signs posted for a harmful algal bloom advisory, keep pets out of the water and do not allow them to eat mats along the waterline.

Harmful algal blooms in public waterways can be reported to the Virginia Department of Health Harmful Algal Bloom program. More information for pet owners on harmful algal blooms can be found at the CDC’s page Cyanobacterial Blooms: Information for Animal Owners.


Call your vet if livestock appear to be poisoned. If you have questions about whether an animal that might be poisoned can be slaughtered and sold for food, contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) State Veterinarian (804-692-0601,


Fish die-offs are common, and often due to natural causes like low oxygen levels in water. If you suspect a fish die-off is due to a harmful algal bloom you can report that at the Virginia Department of Health Harmful Algal Bloom program page. If you suspect a fish die-off is due to chemicals spilled into a waterway, you can report that to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality at your regional office or using their online reporting tool. Wildlife die-offs can be reported to the Department of Wildlife on the mortality reporting tool on their Wildlife Diseases page.

If you find a wild animal that appears sick or poisoned, do not approach it. Wild animals can carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans, including rabies. Animals infected with rabies may look like they are poisoned. They might stagger and drool, and can act confused or aggressive. In Virginia, the animals most often diagnosed with rabies are raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Bats and large rodents like beavers and groundhogs are also considered high-risk for rabies, but any mammal can become infected with the rabies virus. While rabid animals can be visibly sick, some behave in an unusually tame way, so it is important to never touch a wild mammal that lets you get close to it. If you or someone you know is bitten by a wild animal, contact your local health department.

If you see a sick or injured animal, you can contact a local wildlife rehabilitator who is trained to handle and care for wild animals safely. If you think an animal might have rabies, contact your local animal control agency.