WELLINGTON, Fla. — There is an amphibian in Florida that is so toxic it can kill your pet in minutes.
Cane toads, also called bufo toads, are an invasive animal prevalent in Florida. They are native to South and Central America, but wildlife experts said they were first introduced into Florida to control agricultural pests in sugar cane in the 1930s and 1940s.
By the 1950s, a pet importer released about 100 cane toads at the Miami airport, according to researchers at the University of Florida.
The species has since spread through much of South and Central Florida and is highly toxic to pets. They are also incredibly difficult to control, and females can deposit up to 60,000 eggs per year.
Their predators are limited since cane toads are toxic for nearly all of their lives from tadpoles into adulthood.
"[There are] not a ton of natural predators that can get these guys," Jeannine Tilford, the owner of Toad Busters, said.
That's where hunters come in to help try to stop the spread of this invasive species.
Tilford started Toad Busters about eight years ago while she was a veterinarian tech.
"Over time I realized there was a need for this," Tilford said.
She would see dogs coming into the veterinarian clinic after biting or licking a cane toad. Most were on the brink of death or ultimately died.
"I would say, especially a small dog, you have about 10 minutes," Tilford said. "It can cause a seizure. They go into cardiac arrest. They can stop breathing. It's serious. It's not a minor toxin."
The toads ooze a toxic white substance as a defense mechanism.
Record number of toxic toads posing threat to Florida pets
Tilford knows eradicating the toads is not going to happen, but she and her growing staff are trying to put a dent in their reproduction.
"I would say at this point we've probably done 300,000 toads," Tilford said. "We'll never get rid of them because there's just too many of them, and they have a very fast reproductive cycle."
She walks her clients' properties knowing where the toads are most likely to appear. Some are out in the open, resting in tall grass, along fencing, near bodies of water, in bushes and near gutters and property drainage areas.
Bill Galligar in Boynton Beach hired Tilford about a month ago, saying the toads became too much for him and his wife to catch and kill themselves.
"They seem to be getting more aggressive as far as the population," Galligar said.
He has two dogs he wants to protect.
Tilford said a majority of her clients are pet owners who have had close calls with the toads.
"If I go by what the office numbers are, probably once a week to once every two weeks we get a call that somebody lost a dog [to bufo toads]," Tilford said.
Tilford worries that with more people moving to Florida, the risk increases for dogs to encounter toads, mainly because their owners may not know the dangers.
Florida's population growth, she said, is also helping toxic toads thrive.
"With all the new moving, people are building more houses out further west, they're creating more ponds and areas for the toads to breed," Tilford said.
She also hunts for toxic toads to protect native toads, like the southern toad, which looks very similar to cane toads. However, there is a clear difference between the two species that is easy to spot on the toad's belly. A cane toad has mottling on its stomach that looks like black marks or spots.
"What was really cool in some of these areas is we see the native stuff coming back," Tilford said. "So not only are we keeping people's pets safe, we see the numbers of southern toads, and spadefoot toads, and our native tree frogs start coming back, which is awesome."
To kill cane toads humanely, Tilford said the proper practice is to spray them with benzocaine, such as Orajel or a first aid spray, which puts them to sleep. You should then put them into a plastic bag and leave it in the freezer for three days to make sure the toad dies before disposing of it in the trash.
She also recommends creating a dog "first aid kit" to quickly respond if your dog makes contact with a cane toad. That includes a mouth rinse. Make sure to spray water sideways out the dog's mouth, not down its throat. Tilford also uses rags to wipe any remaining toxin off the dog's gums and tongue.
Tilford sells dog first aid kits on her website, but you can also check her kit's list of supplies to make a similar at-home kit.