Paint and Varnish Poison Alert for Dogs and Cats

House paint, art paint, varnishes and other decorative or protective solvents come in many varieties… and most paint-and-varnish-dogsare dangerous to dogs and cats. Water-based paints, the most common, include latex, tempera, and poster paints. Other paints are solvent-based or oil-based. Varnish is essentially a clear oil-based paint used to finish surfaces (often wood). Older buildings and products may contain lead-based paint, even though the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a ban on lead-containing paint (and items coated with such paint) in 1977, and Canada limited lead by law, starting in 1976. Plus some artist paints still contain lead, which is needed to provide certain yellow tints.

Pets are naturally curious and may walk through your painting supplies, work area, or a freshly painted surface. Your dog or cat may then ingest a small amount of paint while grooming or licking off paint.

"Please keep pets away from paints and varnishes at all times if possible! If your dog or cat is exposed to paint (through licking, etc.) or is trapped in a room with such solvents, serious symptoms could occur."

What are the paint and varnish dangers to dogs and cats?

"Lead paint exposure has been known to be extremely harmful and can cause symptoms right away, or it may take a while before symptoms appear. It should be avoided completely."

  • Paints without lead are much safer, causing little more than mild gastrointestinal upset. They usually don’t cause a concern with a very small exposure, but some contain a low concentration (5-10%) of glycols, including ethylene glycol (an antifreeze ingredient that’s VERY dangerous to dogs and cats when ingested in concentrated form).
  • Water-based paints may irritate a dog’s or cat’s skin and mucous membranes, but they’re not expected to cause toxicity or poisoning. However, large ingestions may cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Most latex paints are considered to be non-toxic. However, when large volumes are ingested, the glycol type and concentration could become troublesome, causing such ailments as profound respiratory depression, metabolic acidosis (too much acid in the body), and crystals in the urine. Without treatment, irreversible kidney failure could occur.
  • Oil-based paints and varnishes are worrisome because they contain solvents that can accidentally be inhaled into the lungs (while drinking or after vomiting) or could cause laxative effects. The most life-threatening concern from ingestion of these products is lung inflammation and infection (aspiration pneumonia) and difficulty breathing. Oils also can act as a lubricant in the intestine and thus cause diarrhea. Heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, and cobalt may be added to oil paints as pigments, and as we mentioned, lead interferes with metabolic pathways and inhibit normal red blood cell maturation. Toxicity or poisoning is expected primarily with long term (chronic) exposure, but may result from acute ingestion of sufficient quantities.  


Paints and varnishes should be used in well-ventilated areas to avoid respiratory irritation or light-headedness in people and pets.

Is there a certain amount of paint that’s safe or poisonous to dogs and cats?

There’s really no specific amount or “toxic dose” of paint that’s harmful, since your pet’s size and weight matters, and there are many ingredients and variables to take into account. A small taste or touch of paint will probably not cause significant symptoms. And unless your dog or cat drinks a paint containing heavy metal, it’s rare that a pet would drink enough undiluted paint to warrant major concern. But if you know or suspect that your dog or cat has been exposed to paint, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline for instructions.

"There’s really no specific amount or ‘toxic dose’ of paint that’s harmful. But if you know or suspect that your dog or cat has been exposed to paint, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680) for instructions."

What do I do if my dog or cat eats, licks paint (or breathes in paint fumes)?

Call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline* (800-213-6680) immediately! The sooner you get guidance and any needed treatment, the better the prognosis and outcome for your pet!

IMPORTANT: NEVER induce vomiting or give anything orally to your pet unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian. This could make the situation worse!

What are the symptoms of paint poisoning in a dog or cat?

Your pet could develop any of the following symptoms of paint toxicity within a few hours after exposure. If you see any of these signs, call your veterinarian immediately:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Incoordination or difficulty walking or standing (walking like drunk)
  • Depression or lethargy
  • Tremors
  • Difficulty breathing


How will my veterinarian diagnose paint poisoning?

Your veterinarian will first look for any evidence of paint exposure, such as the dried product on the muzzle or paws. A presumptive diagnosis may be made if a pet develops diarrhea and there is a known possibility of exposure to a paint product or the water from cleaning painting tools.  

Is there an antidote for paint toxicity in pets?

There is no general antidote for a dog’s or cat’s exposure to paint. If lead or other heavy metals are the concern, then there are compounds called chelating agents that can be used to rid the body of that metal. In the rare case that ethylene glycol (antifreeze) would be a concern, there is an antidote for that and treatment needs to be initiated quickly.

How should an animal with paint exposure or poisoning be treated?

cat-paintIf your dog or cat has just ingested paint, vomiting should not be induced. This will increase the chance of the paint getting into your pet’s lungs, which is very harmful. Encourage your pet to drink a few ounces of water.

If your pet gets paint on the skin or fur, quickly wash it off with mild liquid dish soap, or carefully trim the affected fur (without scratching or cutting the skin!). It’s better to leave a little paint on the pet than create an injury. NEVER use paint thinners, mineral spirits, or other products to remove the paint without consulting your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680) first.

If your pet develops persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea, it’s critical to take your pet to the veterinarian! Your veterinarian may need to administer subcutaneous (under the skin) or intravenous (IV) fluid to treat dehydration… and also give an anti-vomiting medication to stop the vomiting. Diarrhea is often treated with diet change and sometimes other medications. In cases of symptoms of inhalation of paint into the lungs (aspiration pneumonia), hospitalization for oxygen and antibiotics may be needed until symptoms are under control and your pet can breathe normally.   

Can pets recover from paint poisoning?

The expected outcome (prognosis) is good for dogs or cats that have a limited exposure to paint products. When treatment is needed, prognosis is good as long as the appropriate care can be provided.

How do I prevent paint or varnish poisoning in my pets?

Here are three things you can do to avoid the problem as much as possible:

  • Store paint products safely, out of your pet’s reach.
  • Properly dispose of paint wastes and cleaning supplies.
  • Keep your pets out of the area where paint has been used until the paint is dry and the area has been well ventilated.
  • Be aware of your pet’s environment and remove any loose paint or paint chips from the area.


“Keep your environment safe and call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline* (800-213-6680) if you have questions about a given product or your suspect exposure.”

pet_poision_helpline_logo*Pet Poison Helpline, is an animal poison control service available 24 hours, 7 days a week for pet owners and veterinary professionals who require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at www.petpoisonhelpline.com. Pet Poison Helpline is not directly affiliated with LifeLearn.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Dr. Colleen M. Almgren, DVM, PhD, Pet Poison Helpline.

© Copyright 2013 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

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