Pet owners warned about 'well-known' substance poisoning dogs

The fire ant is one of the world's most harmful pests, with authorities scrambling over how best to combat the worsening spread.

Inset, fire ants in dirt in Queensland. Right, a 12-year-old dog became violently ill on the Gold Coast over the weekend after consuming what was believed to be fire ant poison.
Pet owners have been warned after a 12-year-old dog became violently ill on the Gold Coast over the weekend after consuming what was believed to be fire ant poison. Source: 9News

Vets are warning Aussie pet owners to be extra vigilant in the coming weeks and months as authorities continue their war against the invasive fire ant, laying bait in affected areas in an ongoing bid to eradicate the introduced species.

The fire ant is one of the world's most harmful pests. They are believed to have been introduced into Australia via ports in Brisbane back in 2001, and since then, their population numbers across the region have skyrocketed. Fire ants are predatory towards animals that nest, feed, or simply walk along the ground, including toward our native insects, spiders, lizards, frogs, birds and mammals.

They threaten our agricultural industry, too, and can kill livestock, attacking and killing the roots of crops and plants before they can even grow. Fire ants are also dangerous to people and our pets.

While the National Fire Ant Eradication program said fire ant "treatment is non-toxic to pets, including cats and dogs", animal specialists have warned that in high quantities, the bait can be fatal.

The Small Animal Specialist Hospital Australia (SASH) said they see animals treated "daily" for toxin-related issues. Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Dr Emma Wilkie said the ingredient in ant bait is well-known and absolutely toxic in very large doses.

"Most fire ant baiting is happening in South East Queensland at the moment, so we aren’t seeing much of it in Sydney," she told Yahoo. "That being said, some of the ingredients in these baits are the same as those used in household ant baits, which I have treated through our 24/7 emergency department from time to time.

Two fire ant warning signs seen in Queensland, as authorities work to combat the spread of the invasive pest.
Thousands of red fire ant nests have been detected over the last few years across Queensland, many found to have breached a biosecurity zone set up to stop them. Source: 9News

"It can be reasonably common, dogs are well known for eating things they definitely shouldn’t, and baits in particular are designed to be appetising for other species. It’s not unexpected that we see some crossover in the animals that are attracted to it."

Wilkie said there are "a number of different chemicals" that can be used in fire ant baits, and "thankfully they’re all developed to be much more harmful to insects than they are" to mammals.

"Therefore, the amount of toxin within an individual bait tends to be quite small, and for a dog to experience toxic effect, they’d usually have to eat a very large amount (for some chemicals they’d have to eat over a kilogram of bait)," she said,

"The first step should always to be contact your family veterinarian, or an out-of-hours veterinarian. They’ll likely ask for advice on the brand-name of the product, or the names and concentrations of the active chemical ingredients, and help you determine if you need to come into the clinic for assessment, or if you can continue to monitor at home."

Dr Michael O'Donoghue echoed the sentiment and said "there's a strong association between the fire ant bait and the clinical science that we see".

"Toxins certainly do kill animals on a regular basis," he told 9News. "Keep them off the grass if you know fire ant bait has been applied on your property, keep them off the grass," he cautioned pet owners.

Hordes of fire ants seen in a still on the left, while a close up of a single fire ant is seen on the right.
While a single fire ant bite produces a relatively mild needle-like sting, swarms can inflict hundreds or even thousands of bites that can result in anaphylactic shock. Source: National Fire Ant Eradication Program

The warning comes after a dog became violently ill in Currumbin Waters on the Gold Coast at the weekend, after consuming what was believed to be fire ant poison, 9News reported.

The 12-year-old pooch at first "wouldn't stop throwing up" but was quickly rushed to the vet where he was treated and eventually stabilised. The incident has now prompted experts to speak out, urging pet owners to remain on alert.

Fire ant populations have been found almost exclusively in southern Queensland, plus nests have also been in South Murwillumbah and Wardell in northern NSW.

Meanwhile, recent data has found red imported fire ants could cost the Australian economy up to $22 billion in losses by the 2040s. The Australia Institute said earlier this year the federal government may be low-balling the biosecurity threat from the invasive species, warning that efforts to eradicate the ants have not been properly resourced and the government’s own economic modelling on the ants underestimates their danger.

"Government commissioned modelling assesses only a 15-year time frame and ignores the $2.5bn per year in damages that fire ants will cause beyond 2035,” the institute said in a research paper released in April.

"Extending the government commissioned analysis to a 20-year time frame shows every dollar invested in eradication will bring between $3 and $9 in benefits.

"This analysis shows that RIFA (Red Imported Fire Ants) will cost Australia more than $22b by the 2040s. This means that it is less costly to spend $200m or even $300m per year every year for the next 10 years, which would be a total of between $2b and $3b, to eradicate RIFA now."

A fire ant warning sign seen in Queensland, in the Currumbin Valley.
Queensland in particular has copped the brunt of the invasion. Source: 9News

The ants inflict painful stings on people and animals and pose a threat to the country’s agricultural industry. They can fly up to five kilometres and travel over and underground, the government’s animal and plant pests and diseases website states, and can also move with shipping containers and cargo and hide in soil, mulch, fertiliser and plant material.

The government has spent $690m to contain and eradicate the species since 2001 following an outbreak in Southeast Queensland.

With NCA Newswire

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