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Ask the Vet: Keep Mothballs Out of the Garden

Dr. Lee Pickett on

Q: Bradley, our young indoor-outdoor cat, recently experienced a bout of vomiting, lethargy and seizures. By the time we got him to the veterinarian, he seemed normal and the vet could find nothing wrong. Two days later, however, Bradley suffered a repeat episode.

I just now remembered that our neighbor had scattered mothballs in her garden to deter skunks and groundhogs. Bradley eats everything, and it wouldn't surprise me if he munched on a mothball. Can mothballs cause the problems he's been having?

A: Yes. Mothballs are so toxic that they deserve no place in the garden or anywhere else a child, pet or wild animal could ingest even one of them.

Most mothballs in the U.S. contain either naphthalene, which causes most of the mothball poisonings in pets, or paradichlorobenzene. Naphthalene, a component of fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, is twice as toxic as paradichlorobenzene, an insecticide. Camphor mothballs are rarely sold in this country, which is fortunate since they are even more toxic than the other two.

Mothballs are solids that slowly turn into gases, giving off a telltale foul-smelling, toxic vapor.

Signs of mothball ingestion are similar for naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene: vomiting, loss of coordination, disorientation, weakness, collapse, tremors, seizures and coma. Liver damage can occur within a few days, and kidney failure is possible. Also, the gums and whites of the eyes may turn yellow from naphthalene exposure.

 

To determine what a mothball is composed of, start by dropping it into a glass of water. Camphor mothballs float, while naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene sink.

If the mothball sinks, add 3 heaping tablespoons of salt to 4 ounces of warm water and mix vigorously, until the salt no longer dissolves. Drop the mothball into this saturated salt solution. Naphthalene mothballs float, while paradichlorobenzene mothballs sink.

Then, if Bradley has another episode, you can tell your veterinarian what kind of mothball he may have ingested.

Diplomatically ask your neighbor to rid her garden of mothballs and use a safer, more effective wildlife deterrent, such as a motion-activated water sprinkler or a nontoxic animal repellent available from a local garden store.

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