Each year we sponsor an event to help local veterinarians receive the continuing education they need to keep their veterinary license active in South Carolina. This year, we were fortunate to have Dr. Ahna Brutlag of Pet Poison Helpline speak.

Pet Poison Helpline is a service available by phone or online 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide information to pet owners and health care professionals who require assistance treating poisoned pets. The staff consists of 15 veterinarians and 25 certified technicians to answer questions.

Here are some questions I (Perry Jameson) was able to ask during her visit in Charleston:

Q: What are the most common toxins you were called about in 2013?

A: For dogs, it was chocolate, xylitol (artificial sweetener), anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and Tylenol, over-the-counter cough/allergy medications, rat poisons, ADD/ADHD medications, glucosamine joint supplements and silica gel packs to absorb oxygen.

For cats, it was lilies, household cleaners, flea/tick spot-on treatments for dogs, antidepressants, anti-inflammatory drugs, ADD/ADHD medications, over-the-counter cough/allergy medications, plants containing calcium oxalate crystals (philodendron), household insecticides and glow sticks/jewelry.

Q: Which human foods worry you the most?

A: While many pet owners know that chocolate can be poisonous to dogs, there is a lot of confusion regarding what type of chocolate is MOST harmful. Dark chocolate is the most dangerous since it contains high amounts of theobromine, a relative of caffeine that can be deadly.

Xylitol, a sweetener in sugarless gums and candies, is also very dangerous and can be life-threatening even when ingested in small amounts.

Raisins and grapes are often overlooked by dog owners as potentially dangerous, but they are extremely toxic and can cause kidney failure.

Other human foods toxic to dogs include macadamia nuts, garlic, onions, yeast-based dough and table salt.

Q: Which toxins worry you the most for cats?

A: Concentrated spot-on flea and tick medications made for dogs contain pyrethrins or pyrethroids, which are highly toxic to cats. Poisoning in cats can occur when pet owners apply dog insecticides to their cats, or when cats lick the medications off dogs. This can result in tremors and life-threatening seizures.

Thankfully, most cats can be saved if treated appropriately by a veterinarian. Always read labels carefully before using any kind of insecticide on pets and ensure it's intended for the species you are treating.

Q: My own cats love to chew on plants I bring inside. Are there any I should worry about?

A: Of all plants, lilies are the most deadly to cats. The species to watch for are the common ones: tiger, day, Asiatic, Easter and Japanese show (Lilium and Hemerocallis spp.). Florists often include them in arrangements because they are fragrant, inexpensive and long-lasting.

Very small ingestions of two or three petals or leaves, or even pollen licked off a cat's coat, can result in severe, potentially irreversible kidney failure.

Other "lilies," such as peace, Peruvian and calla, are not true lilies and cause only minor symptoms in cats. Examples of additional household plants dangerous to cats are the cyclamen, Kalanchoe species, Dieffenbachia species, daffodils and lily of the valley.

Q: What advice do you have for owners to keep their pets safe from poisoning?

A: If you think your pet may have ingested something harmful, take action immediately. Contact a veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline at 1-800-213-6680. Time is of the essence in poisoning cases. The sooner a dog poisoning or cat poisoning is diagnosed, the easier, less expensive and safer it is to treat your pet."

Over half the cases Pet Poison Helpline is consulted about involve human medications. The vast majority of these cases can be prevented with some simple tips:

Keep human medications stored in a different location from pet medications. Pet Poison Helpline often takes calls from pet owners who accidentally give their human medications to pets.

Weekly pill holders are irresistible to some dogs, as they resemble chew toys and rattle. The danger is that a dog could ingest a full seven days' worth of medications, significantly increasing the risk for poisoning.

Avoid putting medications into plastic storage baggies before traveling. These are not pet proof (or child-proof), and can easily be chewed into by dogs.

Hang your purse out of the reach of your pets. Inhalers, medications, sugar-free gum and other items that are dangerous to pets can be easily snatched out of a purse by a curious dog or cat. Pet Poison Helpline recently produced a video titled "Handbag Hazards" available at www.petpoisonhelpline.com/Ask-the-Vet-Videos.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com or veterinaryspecialtycare.com.