Dog owners beware: Creepy-crawly cane toads emerge for summer breeding season across South Florida
They come out at night during the summer and creep around your neighborhood, slowly lumbering along as they basically eat anything that will fit in their fist-sized mouths.
Like a smelly fog or a bad dream, cane toads drift out on the landscape after sunset, crawling along streets and driveways as they case your property for food.
They're not afraid of cars, and they're not all that afraid of you, either.
These voracious carnivores aren't worried about natural predators because they don't have any.
Worst of all, they can kill your dog.
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"We've had a couple of cases (of dogs poisoned by cane toads) so far this year, less than in years past though," said Fort Myers area veterinarian Cheryl Ankenbrandt. "I think part of that has to do with owner education. I think the public is more aware now."
Pets, particularly dogs, are prone to chasing and grabbing the toads.
Once they bite the toad it emits venom from two large glands just behind its head.
Symptoms of cane toad poisoning in pets include excessive drooling and extremely red gums, head-shaking, crying, loss of coordination, and sometimes convulsions.
"They'll almost immediately start to salivate and their gums will turn red," Ankenbrandt said. "And it can lead to trembling and shaking and will progress to full seizures."
Ankenbrandt said the salivation and red gums will show up within a minute of exposure and that trembling can start soon after that.
"But it depends upon how much they get," she said. "If it's a bigger toad they'll get a bigger dose. The first thing (the owner) should do is rinse the dog's mouth out. Get the toad away from the dog and rinse the mouth out. Don't drown the dog, and if another person is present have them call the emergency vet. If you can rinse it out before it's swallowed you may avoid the worst of the problem."
Cane toad venom can also cause skin and eye irritation in humans who handle the toads.
Native to South and Central America, the cane toad was imported to Florida during the 1950s by the agriculture industry with the idea that the toads would control pests in farm fields.
It didn't work, but the toads stayed and adapted to Florida's sub-tropical climate.
"Cane toads, also known as bufos, giant or marine toads, are invasive amphibians that have been introduced into Florida," said Michelle Kerr, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency charged with protecting native wildlife and habitat. "Their skin-gland secretes a toxin called bufotoxin which is highly toxic and can sicken or even kill animals that bite or feed on them."
And they've expanded their territory from the Lake Okeechobee area northwest to Tampa, south to Miami and to all of Lee County and about one-third of Collier.
They're now a permanent part of the Florida landscape, and it's unknown how far north they could spread.
Like many other invasive species that have established themselves in the Sunshine State, cane toads seem to adapt best to altered and developed landscapes.
"That has been my field observations, but I cannot generalize that there might not be some 'undisturbed' native place with them," said Jim Beever, a retired Southwest Florida biologist and planning expert. "I have never encountered them in native floodplains or mangrove swamps in Southwest Florida."
Cane toads lay eggs between March and September, and although adult cane toads are much larger than native Florida toads, the eggs are nearly indistinguishable.
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The largest frog in the world, cane toads can grow to nearly 10 inches, which is more than twice the size of native Florida toads.
Besides poisoning dogs and other domestic animals, cane toads also eat insects, other toads and frogs, and protected birds species and even small native mammals.
The University of Florida says the toads can be humanely killed by rubbing or spraying a 20% benzocaine or sunburn spray (don't use the 5% lidocaine type) on its belly. The toad will become unconscious soon. Put it in a sealed plastic bag and place it in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours. Dispose of the body.
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