Death by pufferfish

pufferfishMost people know what they look like, but few appreciate how deadly the puffer fish really is. Commonly washed up on beaches all around Australia, in varying states of decay, these toxic landmines are a tempting snack for any beach dog.

When fully inflated they’re unmistakable – a white, leathery, prickly balloon, with lips.  In the deflated state, they’re a little less conspicuous, but no less toxic. Pay special attention to the subtle polygonal patterns of the skin, in the image below. It’s the most reliable feature for identification.

.deflated pufferfishhhh

.When rotten and dried out they may just look like any of the foul smelling carcasses that litter the high-tide line, but again, they are still toxic. Holding the dessicated skin up to the light will reveal the same polygonal pattern. If stretched when still moist and pliable, I suspect the skin would make a beautiful, if not smelly, lampshade…

.tetroda skin transillumination

,Along with snorting wasabi, eating ‘fugu’, sashimi of puffer fish, is the extreme sport of Japanese dining. A small number of connoisseurs die each year when a clumsy sushi chef contaminates the meat with toxins from skin and innards. Dogs show no such finesse,  usually happily chomping on the whole thing, unaware they may be enjoying their terminal meal.

What to do? If you’re a fisherman and haul one in, or you spot one on the beach, dispose of them thoughtfully. Poo-bagging is a good strategy if rotten or deflated; burial is a cosmetic solution, but may be the only option in remote locations. Burial in wet sand, around the low-tide line, will mask the odour and accelerate decomposition. They are not toxic to handle.

Tetrodatoxin is a neurotoxin, blocking the nerve messages that supply the muscles. Humans report some sensory effects (numbness, tingling)  but most dog owners first notice vomiting or weakness in the limbs. The neurological symptoms are indistinguishable from botulism, snakebite and tick paralysis, although tick cases are usually more slowly progressive..

For more interesting detail on the evolution of tetrodatoxin in the animal kingdom, see here.


  • If you catch your dog eating one, seek immediate veterinary attention as there is no antidote and inducing vomiting ASAP is the most effective and inexpensive treatment.
  • If your dog’s unwell and your vet suspects it may be a snakebite or tick, make sure you always mention any encounters with beach refuse, as snake and tick antivenom are expensive and offer no benefit for puffer fish poisoning. Unfortunately, death by respiratory failure within 12 to 24 hours is a common outcome.
  • If you’re certain a dog has eaten puffer fish, several hours have elapsed so induced vomiting is unlikely to be of major benefit, and you’re cashed up, seeking a vet clinic with a functional respirator is probably your best bet. Transporting hypoxic, paralysed patients between clinics isn’t easy.

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4 Responses to “Death by pufferfish”

  1. lisa latorre says:

    I took my cat to the vet with extreme drooling, and vomiting clear phlegm. It was decided that he ate something that irritated his mouth. he vomited at least 7-10 times this clear phlegm. My question: I have a small dried puffer fish hanging up that was bought at a gift shop about 10 years ago. Is it possible that it is still toxic, say if my cat chewed on it? I am told it is more likely that it was just a bug or lizard, as blue bellies are very common here.

  2. matt says:

    hi there, yes, even the died fish can be toxic….. here is a link that decribes the toxicity of dried fillets.

    thst being said, if the fish is hanging and out of reach of kitty, there are countless other toxins, man-made and natual, then can cause the drooling and vomiting you describe. Tetroda toxin will more usually result in weakness, a wobbly drunken gait, progressing to paralysis, usually over a few hours.


  3. jenny says:

    our dog eat a small part of a puffer fish while on a walk on the beach she was dead within 60min, could not get her to the vet. in time

  4. mingbor Yip says:

    I wish you to advise me if fully-dried puffer fish skin is still toxic thereby not suitable for human consumption. In Asian countries, the skin is sold as dried seafood in some grocery stores.

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