Batteries pose a major health risk to dogs and children when accidentally ingested. Battery ingestions are common dog emergencies due to the curious chewing nature of dogs.
Many times, pet owners will come home to find the television remote control chewed on and a punctured battery on the floor. Sometimes, the batteries may be missing altogether. Unfortunately, if the battery is punctured, it can result in severe, life-threatening injury to the tissues of the mouth, esophagus, stomach and intestines.
What makes batteries dangerous?
As there are several types of batteries, it’s important to note the dangers presented by each type:
- Most common household batteries are alkaline or acidic material batteries (e.g., 9-volt, DC, AA, AAA), which are corrosive when punctured or leaking (e.g., when a dog’s tooth punctures the battery). Alkaline dry cells (the majority of household batteries) contain potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. When the compounds come into contact with tissue, liquefaction necrosis occurs, causing deeply penetrating ulcers.
- Newer types of “disc shaped” batteries can allow an electric current to pass to the tissues of the GI tract as the battery is passed. This can result in a current-induced necrosis, causing tissue damage or even perforation of the oropharynx, esophagus, stomach or small intestine. (This video created by Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center shows the “burn” dangers of disc shaped batteries.)
- The most dangerous types of batteries are lithium button type batteries. These are extremely dangerous for kids and dogs. Even one 3-volt battery can result in severe necrosis to the gastrointestinal tract or esophagus within 15-30 minutes of contact.
- Lastly, certain batteries contain heavy metals (e.g., mercury, zinc, cobalt, lead, nickel or cadmium). Heavy metal toxicity can occur when these types are ingested by dogs, but typically the battery has to stay in the gastrointestinal tract for several days for this to occur.
What do I do if my dog swallows or chews a battery?
With any type of battery ingestion, immediate veterinary attention is imperative. That’s because the more time that passes, the more corrosive burning occurs in the tissue.
Key Point—You should not induce vomiting if your dog ingested a battery! What’s corrosive going down the esophagus is corrosive coming back up—meaning even more damage!
Key Point—While ulcers can develop secondary to the corrosive chemical within batteries, these ulcers may not show up in the mouth for several hours. This is important because you can’t judge if your dog punctured a battery or not based on the presence (or lack of presence) of ulcers in the mouth. Just because ulcers aren’t immediately present after chewing a battery, doesn’t mean that severe ulceration isn’t occurring lower in the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., esophagus or stomach).
If your dog swallows or chews a battery, don't panic. First, offer something tasty to flush the corrosive substance out of the mouth and esophagus. I often recommend trying a small amount of chicken broth, chicken noodle soup, or even the water from a can of tuna (not oil!). Do NOT induce vomiting; instead, get to your veterinarian immediately following the flush. Here's what you could expect:
- Your veterinarian may do a thorough oral exam and physical exam. Again, note that oral ulcerations may not be present on physical examination for several hours, and the absence of oral ulcerations does not rule out severe underlying corrosive injury lower in the gastrointestinal tract.
- If a dry cell battery was punctured, sometimes the presence of black powdered material may be seen in the mouth. This raises suspicion that a battery was punctured.
- The mouth may be thoroughly flushed and lavaged for 15-20 minutes with tepid tap water. This is often immediately after an exam is done.
- A lateral x-ray (including the esophagus and stomach) can look for the presence of the battery. Thankfully, all batteries show up on x-ray due to the metal.
- If the battery is seen on x-ray, the ideal treatment is prompt removal to prevent further corrosive injury. This may be done by endoscopy (your vet can stick a camera down into the stomach with your pet under anesthesia and try to grab the battery out) or surgery.
- Additional, potential treatment includes anti-ulcer medication (including antacids and stomach protectants) for 5-7 days, a bland or high-fiber diet and even pain medication if ulcers are present.
As battery ingestions can be life threatening, it’s very important that you not delay treatment; get to a vet quickly.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.