Our cats are beloved by us, and very much a part of the family. Therefore, it can be very distressing to think that anything might cause them harm. In this article, we will discuss the most common symptoms of poisoning in cats, what you can do to help your cat if you think they have been poisoned, as well as some tips to help avoid your cat coming in contact with poisons. 

As always, if you have any suspicion that your cat may be unwell, it is recommended to contact your veterinary clinic as soon as possible. Your vet will be able to advise on the next best step for your cat, giving them the best chance of uncovering what is going on, as well as giving them the best chance at making a recovery. 

What is poisoning? 

Poison (or toxin) refers to something that causes the body harm. This harm may be due to poisons that cause symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea which make our pets feel very poorly, or they may even affect vital processes such as breathing and heartbeat. Some toxins can cause mild symptoms and sickness, while others can be fatal. 

What are the most common signs of poisoning? 

It is crucial to remember that cats are very good at hiding things from their owners. Sometimes this secrecy can be a good thing (such as when they catch mice and other wildlife!). But unfortunately, it can mean that they are less likely to show symptoms of being poisoned than other species such as dogs. 

Different poisons will show different symptoms, but some of the most common symptoms of poisoning in cats include: 

  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Seizures/ tremors/ twitches/ “fits” 
  • Lethargy (excessive tiredness) or other behaviour changes such as not wanting to leave their bed 
  • Excessive energy/ hyperactivity 
  • Collapse/ unconsciousness 
  • Salivation 
  • Presence of hives/ bumps/ irritation of their skin 
  • Excessive thirst 
  • Straining to pass faeces or urine 
  • Changes to their breathing or difficulty breathing 
  • Sudden death 

If you’re worried about something your cat has eaten or been exposed to, you can use our interactive Poisons Guide to decide how urgent it is: 

If you think your pet may have been in contact with a poison it is really important to get in contact with your veterinary clinic as soon as possible; even if your pet does not have any of these symptoms. This is because different poisons can take different amounts of time for their symptoms to show. It is also important to note that some poisons can initially show mild symptoms such as lethargy. They can quickly progress to much more serious symptoms such as loss of consciousness or even death. Therefore, the sooner you get veterinary care for your pet, the better their chance should be of recovery from poisoning. 

How can I help my cat if I think they have been poisoned? 

As discussed above, your veterinary clinic should be your first contact if you think your pet has been poisoned. Give your vet as much relevant information as possible when they are discussing your pet’s case with you;such as when the toxin was eaten; how your pet is behaving now; what size your cat is; and whether your cat has any previously diagnosed medical conditions or is receiving any prescribed medications. 

While contacting the veterinary practice, and during the journey to the practice, make sure your cat no longer has any further access to the toxin. 

The next best step for your cat will depend on a number of factors. This includes how recently they have been in contact with the product, the quantity, and whether they are showing any symptoms. 

Wear protective gloves when handling your cat if they have had access to a toxin (such as bleach) that may be harmful to humans. If so, while contacting your veterinary clinic and during the journey to the vet, it is important to not allow your cat to groom themselves; as they will be at risk of ingesting more of the toxin from their fur. 

If possible, bring the container/ wrapper/ a sample of the toxin ingested. This can help your vet determine the best treatment options for your pet. This is especially the case for rat poison cases. 

What your vet might do…

If your cat has recently eaten the toxin, your vet may recommend attempting to induce vomiting. It is important that this is never attempted at home, as the risk of choking is very high. It is also important to note that vomiting is only induced for the treatment of certain toxins. Unfortunately, inducing vomiting can be less successful in cats compared to the same procedure in dogs. Your vet will be able to advise if attempting to induce vomiting is suitable for your cat’s individual case. 

Your vet will advise you if other treatments such as IV fluids (a drip) or specific medications/ antidotes are necessary. For some of these toxins, there is a specific antidote drug that can be given to counteract the toxic drug they have taken. An example of this is paracetamol poisoning; a drug called acetylcysteine can be given into your cat’s vein. This is to help prevent your cat from being poisoned by paracetamol. In the case of antifreeze poisoning, the antidote is specially prepared alcohol given into your cat’s vein to try and reverse the chemical reaction that causes kidney failure with antifreeze poisoning. It is vital that this process is only ever carried out by a veterinary professional. They will carefully calculate and prepare the dose; this should never be attempted at home. 

What are the most common causes of poisoning in cats? 

By far the most common cause of poisoning in cats is from things they find around our houses. Cats are generally much more selective about what they eat compared to their canine counterparts; yet poisoning is still a very common cause of cats having to be rushed to their veterinary practice for emergency treatment. 

Some of the most common household causes of poisoning in cats include: 

1) Human Foods

Even though cats are mammals like us humans, this doesn’t mean they can enjoy the same diet as we can. Quite a number of our favourite foods are toxic (poisonous) to our feline friends. 

Common foods that are toxic to cats include: 

  • Avocados – can cause a very upset stomach (vomiting and/or diarrhoea) and there are some reports of more serious symptoms (although it’s less toxic to cats than to some other species). 
  • Chocolate – contains a toxic compound called theobromine which can lead to tremors, seizures and heart failure if enough of the toxin is ingested. 
  • Grapes, sultanas, currents, and raisins – these are potentially extremely poisonous to cats. They all contain a toxin that can cause kidney failure. And although this is less well understood than in dogs, we should assume they are dangerous to our cats as well. 
  • Macadamia nuts – these can cause your cat to have an upset stomach and may lead to more serious symptoms (although, again, we have more information about their effects on dogs than cats). 
  • Onions and garlic – these foods belong to the allium family. This family of plants also includes leeks, chives, scallions, and many others. They can cause anaemia (low blood cell count) and other nasty symptoms if ingested. 
  • Alcohol – cats are much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than humans. As a result of this, even very tiny quantities of alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning in cats. 

These are some of the main foods that are toxic to cats, but it is not an exhaustive list. 

If you suspect your cat may have eaten any of these foods or other foods they shouldn’t have eaten, it is important to contact your vet for individual advice.

2) Medications/ drugs

Many human medications and drugs (including over-the-counter drugs, prescription medication, and illegal drugs) can be very toxic to cats, even in tiny quantities. 

  • Human painkillers: Cats are unable to break down these drugs. And they can become poisoned and die from even very small quantities of these drugs. 
  • Paracetamol (Panadol/Calpol) and ibuprofen (Neurofen) are two of the most serious drug toxicities we see in cats in veterinary practice. Signs of paracetamol poisoning in cats include yellow, brown or pale blue gums, breathing difficulty, vomiting, swelling of the extremities (such as the face, mouth, and paws), unconsciousness, and even sudden death. Even ⅛ of a paracetamol tablet is a potentially lethal dose for a cat. Ibuprofen typically causes vomiting (often with blood), increased thirst and changes of urination, due to kidney failure.
  • Cannabis and other illegal drugs – any quantity of these drugs can lead to serious issues with your cat’s nervous system. Symptoms can include tremors, seizures, and wobbliness. 
  • Tobacco – if cats come into contact with either the cigarettes themselves or even just tobacco smoke, it can lead to serious symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, and seizures. Prolonged exposure to cigarettes over a longer period of time will also make them susceptible to conditions; such as feline asthma, lung cancer, and other disorders of the breathing system. 

Contact your veterinary clinic immediately if your cat has come in contact with these (or any other) medications. 

3) Household products

Even though cats are less likely to chew on bottles and other things they shouldn’t when compared to dogs, they are still at risk of coming into contact with household toxins such as bleach, cleaning products, paint, and other products such as antifreeze

The most common method of cats coming in contact with these toxins is when they walk over a surface that has been recently treated with these products, such as a recently bleached floor that has not fully dried. Cats like to groom themselves very regularly and because of this, they ingest the toxic product when they lick their paws. The most common symptoms of these toxins include vomiting, sores on the mouth/ lips, lethargy, and breathing difficulty, which may prove fatal. 

The other major risk is antifreeze poisoning in cats.

If your pet has come into contact with any of these items, or any other household products, it is very important to contact your veterinary clinic for individual advice. 

4) Pest control products

  • Rat poison – this anticoagulant poison affects the body’s ability to form blood clots in cats (and indeed, rats) who ingest it. It is important to note that the symptoms (most commonly vomiting up blood or bruising on the belly/groin area) will not be seen for several days after they have eaten the rat poison. 
  • Slug pellets – used to contain the toxin metaldehyde, which can cause hyperactivity and seizures. This has now been banned from sale, but some gardeners may still have a stache of the older ones containing this toxin.

If your pet has contact with either of these poisons, contact your vet immediately. The symptoms for rat poisoning in particular are not seen until several days after the poison has been eaten. 

5) Certain Plants

Unfortunately, as beautiful as our favourite plants are, many can be fatal to cats if they ingest them. Of all the poisonous plants for cats, lilies are by far the most common plant to cause poisoning in cats. All parts of the lily plant (including the stems, flowers, and pollen) contain a toxin that can cause vomiting, lethargy, and even death due to kidney failure. 

There are many other plants that are toxic to cats, the ASPCA has a database of different toxic and non-toxic plants which is an excellent resource for owners. However, it is important to remember that if you have any concerns about a plant your cat may have eaten, it is best to contact your vet for advice as soon as possible. 

Seeking advice

As always, seeking prompt veterinary advice is vital if you think your pet may have ingested or come into contact with a toxin. The VPIS Animal Poison Line can be contacted if further advice is needed by you or by your vet. Unfortunately, some toxins can be fatal even with veterinary care, but the sooner your pet receives veterinary treatment for poisoning, the better their chance of recovering is. 

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