It is a rare cat that scavenges and eats something she shouldn’t, so poisoning isn’t necessarily a problem at the forefront of a cat guardian’s mind. However, cats are still at very real risk of toxicity, even in the safety of their own home.
At the root of the issue is the cats’ inability to break down many common drugs, plus their fastidious grooming habits place them at risk from contaminants on their coat. And if you’re feeling smug because you’d never dream of giving your cat human medications. . . are you certain your floor cleaner is safe and do you have lilies in the house or garden?
Causes of Poisoning in Cats
It is a sad observation that people often have a part to play in cat poisonings. We aren’t talking malicious intent here, but misplaced good intentions or even a touch of carelessness. This may be a flea product for dogs being applied to the cat or a bringing a bouquet of lilies into the house. Top marks if you already know both of these are toxic to cats.
How good are you at spotting potential poison risks for felines?
Choose which of the following pose a risk to cats:
a) Sugar-free cookies
b) Spaghetti sauce with onions and garlic
e) Grapes and raisins
f) All of the above.
The answer is. . . f). Give yourself on a pat on the back for a correct answer.
Let’s take a quick look at why:
- Sugar-free cookies contain xylitol. This causes blood sugar levels to fall dangerously low, leading to coma, and death
- Onions and garlic both contain substances which can destroy feline red blood cells leading to anaemia. But don’t panic, because cats do need to eat a lot of onions regularly, but as a rule of thumb these food stuffs are best avoided.
- Cats lack the enzyme necessary to break down aspirin, which means even a low dose, remains in the system for several days. One ‘regular’ dose is likely to prove fatal to cats.
- In addition to sickness and diarrhoea, the theobromine in chocolate causes excitement, increased heart and respiratory rate, possible seizures, and death.
- Through a mechanism that is as yet unidentified, a substance in grapes and raisin causes non-reversible kidney damage. How serious this is depends on the quantity eaten.
As if that wasn’t scary enough, other common causes of poisoning include:
- Antifreeze: This contains ethylene glycol which smells sweet and is super tempting to cats. Many cats will lap antifreeze from puddles in the gutter, but even walking through it and then grooming can lead to a toxic dose, causing catastrophic kidney failure.
- Slug pellets: Some types of pellets (not all) contain metaldehyde. These are attractive to cats and mistakenly eaten as treats. However, metaldehyde is highly toxic and can cause life-threatening seizures within as little as 60 minutes of ingestion.
- Rat bait: Hopefully rat and rodent bait is put down in a responsible manner so larger mammals cannot gain access. However, this doesn’t mean the risk is negligible to cats because if they hunt and eat their prey, they may take in poison. This can accumulate in the body and cause clotting disorders.
- Flea products for dogs: Some flea products for dogs contain permethrin, which is toxic to cats, and cause seizures and death. Be super careful because if a cat rubs against a dog and the drops get transferred to the cat, this can be enough to cause poisoning.
- Palatable pet meds: In a quest to make giving tablets easier, many pet medications are highly palatable. This does mean the meds should be kept locked away as there is a greater risk of cats eating them as treats and causing accidental overdose.
- Human medications: If you cat is in pain it can be tempting to use a human med to give them some relief. However, you must never do this, unless explicitly instructed to do so by your vet. This is because of the cat’s unique metabolism which doesn’t break down many drugs, meaning it’s super easy to give an accidental overdose.
- Lilies: We’ve mentioned these already, but the risk is so grave and these flowers are so common, for once it’s good to labour a point. Petals, stems, and leaves are all toxic to cats, but most dangerous of all is the pollen. If you cat rubs against the flowers and gets a dusting of yellow pollen, all it takes for her to groom and ingest the pollen and she could be on her way to kidney failure.
Symptoms of Poisoning in Cats
Most of the symptoms of poisoning are ‘non-specific’. This means the signs are general ones such as vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, or seizures, and it’s not possible to reach a definitive diagnosis as to which poison has been taken (or even if poisoning is the cause of the symptoms.)
Any change from the norm should flag up a warning that something isn’t right and the cat should see a vet. Those signs most associated with poisoning include vomiting, diarrhoea, and increased thirst, loss of appetite, tremors, shaking, seizures, and death.
Treatment of Poisoning in Cats
If your cat has eaten something toxic, act immediately. If it was less than two hours ago, grab the packaging (or take a photo) and contact the vet straight away. Making the cat sick within two hours will help to void some of the toxins from the system, but after two hours this is pointless.
It’s best to let the vet give an injection to make the cat vomit. Avoid giving home remedies because many of these, such as giving strong saline solution, are potentially toxic in their own right.
If the cat walked through antifreeze or rubbed against lily pollen, don’t let her lick herself clean. Wipe away the contamination with a clean dry cloth, and if possible bathe the cat. Then wrap her in a big towel or put a cone on her head.
When a vet is presented with a poisoned cat they will make the cat vomit (in fresh cases) and most likely put the cat on an intravenous drip. This is because most toxins induce kidney failure, and by flushing the system it can help to lower the levels of poison and support kidney function.
It is rare that a specific antidote is available, and so treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms. An example would be giving a seizing cat intravenous diazepam in order to control the fits.
The vet may also dose the cat with gastro-protectant and absorbents such as activated charcoal. These can help to soak up any unabsorbed poison still the in the gut, and stop it being absorbed across the bowel wall.
All in all, poisoning is better prevented as treatment may not be curative and the cat could left with a permanent problem. . . or worse, not make it. With so many hazards being human-related, it’s in your hands to keep you cat safe by being aware of potential dangers and protecting your cat.
Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS is a veterinarian with 27-years’ experience in practice and a special interest in feline medicine and behaviour. Pippa is housekeeping staff to four highly individual cats that conspire to keep her busy opening doors on demand.