How common is poisoning?
In general, cats are less prolific scavengers than our canine patients. However, there are some common toxins that we do come across cats being exposed to. Cats have a deficiency of certain liver enzymes which are involved in breaking down drugs and toxins and so are uniquely susceptible to harmful effects of some substances. As a result, poisoning is surprisingly common, as apparently innocuous substances may prove toxic in felines, even if they are safe in humans or other animals.
All parts of the plant can be toxic to cats, and even ingestion of small amounts of pollen can cause serious kidney injury and even death. Cats can rub against the flowers, leaving pollen on their coat, which they can swallow when grooming. If your cat gets lily pollen on their coat, it is best to use sticky tape to remove any pollen, before washing the area with soap and water and seeking veterinary attention urgently. As lily poisoning can be so severe, we would advise against having them in the home if you have a cat.
Antifreeze, used in most car engine coolants and some windscreen de-icer sprays, contains ethylene glycol. This substance damages the small tubules in the kidneys that are involved in urine production and causes acute kidney failure which can be fatal. Caught early, antifreeze poisoning can be treated, but cats can be left with long-term reduced kidney function.
Permethrin (some dog and rabbit flea treatments)
Permethrin is a drug used in some over the counter spot-on flea treatments for dogs, rabbits and small pets. However, it is highly toxic to cats, as cats lack the ability to break it down into harmless components. They may be exposed either by accidental use of flea product meant for a dog, or by direct contact with a dog which has had the treatment applied. The toxin acts by binding to channels in the walls of nerve cells, causing increased excitability. This can lead to tremors, hyperthermia (high body temperature) and seizures. All spot-on treatments containing permethrin should have prominent labelling displaying that the treatment is toxic to cats. Avoid using these products on your dog if you have a cat in the household.
At the correct dosage, paracetamol can be a good painkiller in dogs but NOT in cats. Cats are most commonly exposed by owners giving their cats human paracetamol with good intentions, not realising it is toxic. In cats, paracetamol can cause damage and destruction of red blood cells, leading to anaemia, and can cause severe liver damage. Many cats will die as a result of paracetamol poisoning, but the prognosis is better if it is caught early. Always store human medications out of reach of pets and never give any human medication to a pet without the advice of a veterinary surgeon.
Those containing high-strength detergent, bleach or other caustic or irritant chemicals can cause problems for cats if they are licked, swallowed or walked on. Cats that have licked or swallowed these products can develop ulceration of the lining of their mouth, which can make it painful to eat, and stomach and gut irritation can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Sometimes they may be too painful to eat at all, and so in some cases, a feeding tube may have to be placed so the cat can be fed. If their feet are exposed, they may develop chemical burns on their foot pads, making it painful to walk, and secondary bacterial infections can develop.
Slug pellets (metaldehyde)
Even a few slug pellets can be highly toxic if eaten. Nerve damage can result in tremors, muscle rigidity, seizures and ultimately suffocation. Metaldehyde toxicity is challenging to treat and, unfortunately, exposed animals frequently do not survive.
Garlic and onions
These are part of the Allium family of plants, and can have toxic effects if eaten in different forms, including if raw, cooked or in processed or dry preparations. They contain a substance which damages haemoglobin, the substance which carries oxygen around the bloodstream in red blood cells. This can lead to damage and destruction of red cells, causing a ‘haemolytic anaemia’. This can cause signs such as weakness, reduced appetite and fast breathing.
Treatment of poisoning in cats
The above list is not exhaustive and many other poisons exist. If your cat has been exposed to any poison, the prognosis will always be best if treatment is started quickly. Therefore, if you are at all concerned your pet may have been exposed to a toxin, it is always safest to contact your vet urgently for advice. For poisons that have been ingested, the most effective way to reduce how much is absorbed is to make the animal vomit, if it is safe to do so, and activated charcoal may be given by mouth which can help to bind certain toxins in the gut. Some toxins have a specific antidote. In the cases of poisons for which no antidote exists, treatment is aimed at controlling signs such as nausea and pain. The cat may be started on a drip to flush out any toxins and support the kidneys in cases where kidney injury is a concern. Blood tests may be required to assess organ or blood cell damage.