- Medication type: Gastrointestinal adsorbent
- Form: Liquid, Capsule, Tablet, Powder
- Prescription required? Yes
- FDA approved? No
- Life stage: All
- Brand names: ToxiBan, MedChar, ActiDose, CharcoCaps
- Common names: Activated Charcoal, Activated Carbon, Carbon Black
- Available dosages: Many different dosages available depending on the product.
- Expiration range: Variable depending on the formulation. Most products have a very long shelf life if properly stored.
Activated charcoal is a commonly prescribed emergency treatment in dogs who have ingested a potential toxin. When administered quickly after exposure, activated charcoal can prevent your dog from developing symptoms of poisoning.
However, activated charcoal is not effective for every type of toxin and it is important to be aware of its limitations. If your dog has ingested a foreign substance, you should always consult your veterinarian or poison control before trying to administer treatment at home.
What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is made by burning wood at high temperatures to produce charcoal. The product is then “activated”–a process that creates extra holes and crevices in the charcoal to increase its surface area, thereby increasing its ability to bind to other compounds.
The resulting product is administered by mouth to bind to toxins in a dog’s stomach and gastrointestinal tract.
Activated charcoal is available in both over-the-counter and prescription formulations, but most OTC products are not effective.
What Does Activated Charcoal Look Like?
Activated charcoal comes in many different forms. In veterinary medicine, an oral solution is most commonly used. This can either be purchased as a bottle of thick, black liquid, or it can be made in the veterinary clinic by mixing activated charcoal powder with water. The liquid is then fed to the patient with a small amount of food or it can be administered via an oral syringe.
How Does Activated Charcoal Work?
Activated charcoal has an exceptionally large surface area, allowing it to bind to many different compounds. When administered orally, activated charcoal binds to compounds in a dog’s digestive tract and prevents them from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
This is especially useful in cases of poisoning, because once the toxin is bound, it will be harmlessly removed from the digestive tract in the feces. Some activated charcoal products also contain a cathartic agent such as sorbitol, which speeds the passage of the charcoal through the digestive tract to ensure that toxins are removed quickly.
Unfortunately, not all toxins can be treated with activated charcoal. Some compounds, like ethanol and xylitol, are too small to bind to the activated charcoal.
The timing of the toxin ingestion is also important. If too much time has passed, the toxin has likely already been absorbed into a dog’s bloodstream and activated charcoal will not be effective.
Your veterinarian will decide whether or not to administer activated charcoal based on the type of toxin, when it was ingested, your dog’s symptoms, and any other health conditions.
What is Activated Charcoal Used For in Dogs?
Activated charcoal is used as a gastrointestinal decontaminant following the ingestion of a toxin. Depending on the type of toxin and how much time has passed since your dog ingested the substance, your veterinarian may recommend first inducing vomiting to remove as much of the substance from the stomach as possible.
Activated charcoal is then administered to bind any remaining toxin and prevent it from being absorbed systemically. In some cases, multiple doses of activated charcoal over several hours may be necessary.
Activated charcoal for dogs is commonly used for ingestion of toxins such as:
- Prescription or OTC medications
- Organophosphate or carbamate insecticides
It is important to note that activated charcoal is not recommended for every dog or every case of poisoning. Not every toxin will bind to activated charcoal, and in some cases the presence of charcoal in a dog’s gastrointestinal tract can limit your veterinarian’s ability to administer other treatments. For this reason, it is very important not to give your dog activated charcoal at home unless you have been directed to do so by your veterinarian.
Activated Charcoal Side Effects in Dogs
Activated charcoal can cause serious or potentially life-threatening side effects, particularly if it is administered incorrectly. These products are also not recommended for some patients, such as those experiencing dehydration, gastrointestinal hemorrhage, or signs of bowel obstruction.
Activated charcoal should only be given under the supervision of your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may also recommend additional treatments, such as IV fluids and medications for nausea and vomiting, to manage the side effects of activated charcoal.
Potential side effects of activated charcoal in dogs include:
- Hypernatremia (excessively high sodium in the blood)
- Aspiration, leading to pneumonia and other respiratory problems
- Gastrointestinal obstruction
- Black feces
- Eye irritation
Reactions with Other Drugs and Medications
Activated charcoal binds to many common medications and may reduce their efficacy. Let your veterinarian know if your dog has taken any oral medications in the past 24 hours.
Your veterinarian may recommend altering your dog’s medication dosing schedule to ensure the medication is not affected by the activated charcoal.
Activated Charcoal Dosages for Dogs
Activated charcoal is typically dosed based on your dog’s weight, and dosages may vary depending on the product. Careful dosing is especially important if the product contains cathartic agents such as sorbitol, because this can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances if administered incorrectly.
Some toxins may require multiple administrations of activated charcoal for best results. Consult your veterinarian or poison control prior to administering any activated charcoal to your dog.
Cost of Activated Charcoal for Dogs
Activated charcoal is a relatively inexpensive product. Veterinary-specific oral suspensions of activated charcoal cost about $20-$30 per bottle, but multiple bottles may be needed for large dogs or in severe cases.
Other medications may also need to be prescribed in order to address the toxicity and manage the side effects of activated charcoal, so this may increase the overall cost of treatment.
Activated Charcoal Storage Instructions
Most forms of activated charcoal can be stored at room temperature and are very shelf-stable. Activated charcoal should be stored away from light, heat, and moisture. Be sure to check the packaging for any additional storage instructions from the manufacturer.