July 19, 2023

So are caterpillars dangerous to dogs and cats?

So are caterpillars dangerous to dogs and cats?
Dr. Chris Brown

It’s not every day you see a tiny piece of fluff walking in front of you. And this is exactly the reason why so many dogs and cats can’t resist a sniff and lick…of a caterpillar. But the big question is, what happens next? 

So are caterpillars toxic to pets?

Hint: It’s all about the hair!

I’ve been wanting to talk about caterpillars for a while. And then, in the dog park yesterday, I heard a horror story about a friend’s dog swallowing one. So it’s time!

So caterpillars can be dangerous to pets. In fact, of the 20,000 different types of moths we have here, 1,000 have caterpillars that can cause problems. So it’s roughly a 1 in 20 chance of problems. It's significant...

You see, caterpillars know they’re vulnerable and on the menu for birds, frogs and other small hungry mouths like your gang.

So if camouflage doesn’t work, they can do TWO things to increase their chances of survival.

1. They can sting (like the Mottled Cup Moth caterpillar) with small spines that contain a mild poison. Thankfully these are rare (Pic: Chris Greenaway)

2. Or they can irritate with fine hairs (like the White Cedar Moth) These hairs cause intense itchiness, irritation, swelling and even allergic reactions in the mouth and throat when they’re licked or swallowed (Pic: CSIRO)

These are much more common and account for most of the caterpillar reactions we see in the vet hospital.

The key warning signs of caterpillar ingestion:

  • Lots of lip licking
  • Excess salivation
  • Gagging or coughing
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Tongue swelling
  • Difficulty breathing (in extreme cases)

So what can you do?

The key is prevention. Use a leaf (or kitchen spatula) to move caterpillars (especially the hairy ones) away from pets.

If they have been stung or irritated by the hairs, see your vet. The key is minimising that allergic reaction and irritation.

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