Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ask a Vet: Can Ladybugs Embed in a Dog’s Mouth?

Sometimes, the stuff that gains traction on Facebook amazes me. One of my Dogster editors recently sent me a screenshot of a Facebook post. In a display of good old-fashioned attention-seeking alarmism, the poster had shared a “warning” about “Japanese Beetles and Lady Bugs.”

And in a dead giveaway of somebody trying to start a big hullabaloo on the Internet, the warning starts with “SOMEBODY ASKED ME TO PASS THIS ALONG.” (It’s reminiscent of the way, back in the day, Internet-naive uncles and aunts would forward bogus chain emails that ended with some version of “forward this to six people, and you’ll have good luck for a month; don’t forward this, and someone will smash your birthday cake.”)


One of the many warning posts about lady bugs making the rounds on Facebook.

Such an intro makes it obvious that the circulating Facebook post is not really a warning, but rather bait to get clicks. But is the post based on some sort of reality? Can lady bugs stick to the roof of a dog’s mouth? For more information, Facebook users were directed to the venerable website, snopes.com.

Once there, they surely became confused. It seems that whoever wrote the Snopes article had some trouble understanding the issue as well. What follows will be my attempt to bring some clarity to the matter of whether dog owners need to be worried about this terror du jour.

First, know that it absolutely is possible for insects to embed in a dog’s mouth. I have seen it many times, when debilitated dogs with dental abscesses or tumors suffered fly strike, leading to severe oral maggot infestations. I’ve also seen plenty of ant-infested mouths.

Dog with lady bug by Shutterstock.

Dog with lady bug by Shutterstock.

The photo that accompanies the Facebook posts likely is legit.

There are insects embedded in the roof of a dog’s mouth. But they’re not lady bugs, which are ubiquitous in the USA in warm months. Rather, they’re Asian lady beetles. Asian lady beetles are not native to the USA, but they, too, have become quite common. Unlike native lady bugs, Asian lady beetles may bite, and they also produce chemicals that are toxic and can cause chemical burns, and when disturbed they release a very foul odor. Sadly, they were introduced to the USA intentionally in an attempt to control aphids; they now are pushing out our benign native lady bugs. I am not aware of any report of North American lady bugs ever embedding in a dog’s mouth.

Snopes links to and quotes from a paper by Ian Stocks and Derek Lindsey that was published in 2008. The paper is pretty well known in veterinary circles. It details a case study of a dog who suffered injury to his mouth after Asian lady beetles became embedded in it. Here is the abstract of the paper:

A six-year-old mixed-breed dog presented with severe trauma to the oral mucosa suggestive of chemical burn. Sixteen Harmonia axyridis (Coccinellidae) were removed from the oral cavity, which revealed trauma consistent with chemical burn. The beetles had become embedded in mucosa covering the hard palate and required manual removal. A diagnosis of beetle induced chemical burn was warranted and consistent with the nature of the chemical constituents of H. axyridis hemolymph.

Snopes manages to muddy the waters a bit with its analysis (below), which illustrates that the author does not know the meaning of the words “mucus” and “mucosa.”

First, the research paper identified the bugs as Asian Lady Beetles while many Facebook messages claimed they were common lady bugs. Second, while many Facebook posts claimed that the bugs had embedded themselves into the dog’s mouth, Derek’s paper states that they became embedded (in other words, they got stuck) in a layer of mucus.

Although Snopes, of course, is right on the first count, it should be pointed out that the beetles were not embedded in mucus. They were embedded in mucosa, which is the name for the soft pink tissue that lines body cavities such as the mouth.

So, just how much of a risk do these belligerent beetles pose to your dog? Are the beetles attacking dogs’ mouths when they are sleeping? When they are panting? When they are minding their own business?

Almost certainly not. It is true that veterinarians have reported problems — ranging from mild gastrointestinal upset and ulcers in the mouth to intestinal ulceration, hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, and death — from dog vs. Asian lady beetle interactions. But the beetles aren’t attacking the dogs. It’s the other way around.

The beetles in the various photographs circulating on Facebook and Snopes most likely ended up in the dog’s mouths when the dogs tried to eat them. Large masses of Asian lady beetles may be found in structures and dwellings at certain times. Dogs, being dogs, may eat large quantities of them when they find them. Some of the beetles may hang on and become embedded in the mouth when this happens.

Asian lady beetle by Shutterstock.

Asian lady beetle by Shutterstock.

So the good news is that your dog likely won’t get into trouble with the beetles unless he goes looking for trouble. The bad news, however, is that if he looks for trouble with the beetles he almost certainly will find it.

The beetles, as has been mentioned, produce toxic chemicals in their hemolymph (which is a bug’s equivalent to blood). The toxic chemicals can cause chemical burns of the mouth. Such burns can be seen clearly on the tongue and in the back of the mouth in one of the pictures on the Snopes page.

When they are swallowed, the chemicals may cause ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract. They may cause severe gastrointestinal upset, which in turn can progress to life-threatening hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. Dogs who tangle with Asian lady bugs should get a trip to the vet.

To summarize, yes, Asian lady beetles may harm your dog. If he tries to eat them. So don’t let him do that.

Read more from Dr. Eric Barchas:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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