For the past several years I have been frequently asked by neighborhood associations to give presentations about Cane Toads. Years ago, when I did the first lecture, Cane Toads were not as plentiful as they are today, and I was surprised by the number of people that were interested in them, and I was also surprised by the amount of misinformation there is out there about cane toads. People started recognizing early on that cane toads were a very real threat to their pets, and they wanted more information about them. In all my lectures I try to address five topics; 1. myths about cane toads 2. Basic cane toad biology 2. History of cane toads 3. How to live with cane toads 4. What to do if your pet has an encounter with a cane toad. Let me see how much of that I can pack in here.
Myths about Cane Toads
At this point, I feel like I have heard every myth there is to hear about Cane Toads, yet I hear new ones all the time. The fact is, cane Toads aren’t complicated or particularly special. They can’t fly. They won’t chase you. They don’t hate you. They don’t spit poison. They don’t shoot venom out of their eyes. You don’t have to freeze them for a week to kill them. They can’t climb, tunnel or run 30 miles an hour. They are just toads and they want you and your dog to leave them alone. You don’t have to be afraid of them but you absolutely need to be aware of them and informed about them, because even though they want to be left alone, lots of dogs don’t want to leave them alone, and if a dog gets one in its mouth, the cane toad is different from a common Florida toad in that it has a very effective defense mechanism that could be fatal to the dog.
Cane Toad Biology and History
Cane Toads are amphibians native to Central and South America. At the early part of the last century they were introduced into Australia and South Florida to control cane beetles (hence the term cane toad). Unfortunately, since they can’t climb, and the cane beetles can, they were completely ineffective at controlling pests and became one themselves. They don’t have any natural predators in this part of the world, they will eat just about anything, the climate is (mostly) perfect for them and so they have been able to reproduce to tremendous numbers and expand their range. They lay thousands and thousands of eggs in all the pretty lakes we have in our neighborhoods and every year we are seeing more adults. They are, however, sensitive to cold and will die at temperatures close to freezing. We haven’t had a freeze in Naples in at least 20 years, so the numbers have been building and building. If we were to have a good freeze, those numbers would drop down and the cycle would start over again. So what’s this effective defense mechanism? Cane toads have very large paratoid glands on the sides of their necks that, when squeezed by a dog’s bite, exude a very powerful toxin that can be fatal to pets. It causes seizures, cardiac effects, coma and death. Although many species of toads and salamanders have similar glands and toxins, the toxin of a cane toad is much more, well, toxic. During the day, cane toads hide in cool moist places out of the sun and come out in the evening to feed on bugs primarily, but they will eat small mammals, dog and cat food left out, or garbage. Most cane toad encounters occur at night. It is important to know that cane toads are here to stay. We can’t poison them without killing every other animal, we can’t hunt them all, and until the next ice age, the climate in South Florida is going to suit them just fine.
Living with Cane Toads
Cane Toads aren’t the only animal in South Florida that is dangerous to your dog. Don’t forget, we have bears, coyotes, panthers and alligators. Our pets are a risk of being run over by cars, attacked by other dogs, contracting disease from strays or being killed by evil humans, but we manage those threats by being aware of them and adjusting our behavior to minimize the risk. We don’t (I hope) let our pets run free around roads or swim in our lovely alligator infested swamps. Same with Cane Toads. We can minimize the risk of our dogs being exposed to them by doing some very simple things. Keep your outside lights off. They attract bugs and bugs attract toads. Don’t leave food outside. Cane Toads are lazy and if you provide them a food source, they will take advantage of it. Eliminate them if you find them. They like to live under AC units, in below ground utility boxes, under shrubs, etc. If you find one, humanely kill it. Wasp spray works well. It won’t kill them right away but, since they are amphibians, they absorb the poison through their skin and will die within a few hours. If you have an area that cane toads keep coming back to, punch some holes in the lid of an empty baby food jar and put some moth balls in it. You can put that in the area and the noxious odor will keep the toads away. Just don’t throw the mothballs under your plants. We don’t want the dogs getting to those either, but they are safe in the jar. Know your dog’s behavior. Some dogs, like mine, could care less about cane toads and they ignore them. Others, particularly terriers and retrievers, will grab any little animal they can, whether they are trying to kill it our just play with it, the result can be the same. Leash walks. When you walk your dog at night, keep them on a relatively short leash (retractable leashes are a no no) so that you can see what is right in front of them in time to react. Carry a strong flashlight with you for the same reason. Don’t let your dog get under bushes and shrubs where they might find a cane toad before you can see it. Even if we do everything right, encounters are still going to happen and, unfortunately, I see deaths every year from cane toads. If your dog gets one, what do you do?
What to Do during an Emergency
Toxicity from cane toads is based on several factors like size of the dog, size of the toad, amount of toxin consumed and how quickly we respond. If you see your dog bite a cane toad or even if you strongly suspect it may have happened, immediately take a cloth and do your best to wipe out its mouth. The toxin doesn’t have to be swallowed to be dangerous. It can be absorbed from inside the dog’s mouth. After that, use a hose for a large dog or sink sprayer for a small one and rinse out the mouth. Careful, we don’t want to drown our dog in a panic situation. CALMLY drive to the nearest emergency hospital. You may get there and nothing happen, but the sooner treatment is started, if your dog has indeed been poisoned, the better the prognosis. Fortunately, most cases are not fatal if treatment is timely. There is no specific antidote for cane toad toxin and there isn’t one on the horizon, so treatment consists of supportive care and medication for the specific symptoms like seizures or cardiac effects.
The important takeaways from this are that cane Toads are here to stay and oh yeah, so are we, so we had better learn how to live with them. There are things we can do to minimize the threat from them, and we should have a plan in place in case the unfortunate exposure to a cane toad occurs. Don’t be afraid of them but be aware of them.