Cats and poisons

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It is sometimes said that because cats are fussy eaters they are less easily poisoned than dogs. However, because of their curious nature and the fact that they will groom any substance off their coats and ingest it, intoxication is not that uncommon.

Other factors predispose cats to becoming ill once they have been exposed to a poisonous substance; these include their small body size, their ability to hide so that exposure is not immediately evident, and because cats, being specialist carnivores, lack certain liver enzymes, they are unable to breakdown certain chemicals. It is because of this that when cats become poisoned they are perhaps less likely to recover than dogs.

How can a cat become poisoned?

Cats can be poisoned in a number of ways:

  • Directly ingesting a toxic substance either by eating it or by eating poisoned prey.
  • Swallowing poisons while grooming contaminated fur.
  • Absorbing some toxins through the skin (particularly the paws)
  • Inhaling the poison.

What signs might warn me that my cat may have been poisoned?

The clinical signs are very variable and will depending on the particular poison concerned. Many toxins produce gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and diarrhoea), others produce neurological signs (tremors, incoordination, seizures, excitability, depression, or coma), respiratory signs (coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing), skin signs (inflammation, swelling), liver failure (jaundice, vomiting) or kidney failure (increased drinking, inappetence and weight loss). Some toxins act on more than one body system, and so can produce any combination of the above signs.

It is important to remember that while most cases of intoxication will cause acute problems, chronic intoxication can also arise, and often proves even more difficult to recognise and treat.

What should I do if I think my cat has been poisoned?

  • Remove your cat from the source of the poison and isolate from other animals.
  • If the poison is on the coat or paws, try to prevent the cat from grooming itself further.
  • Contact your vet for advice immediately; make sure you know when, where and how the poisoning occurred. If appropriate take the packaging, plant or substance with you to the vet.
  • Do not try to make the cat vomit, unless you are instructed to do so by your vet.
  • If the skin or fur is contaminated wash thoroughly with mild shampoo and water.

My cat has got something 'chemical' on its coat, what should I do?

Only when the contamination is mild and confined to the coat, can the cat may be treated at home. The aim of treatment is to prevent further contamination.

The cat's collar should be removed as it may also have been contaminated. Also, some flea collars contain chemicals which may be harmful to sick cats. To remove chemicals from the coat it is best to clip off contaminated hair and then wash the cat in warm soapy water. It is important to remove as much of the contamination as possible before washing because the process of washing can increase the absorption of some chemicals. The cat must then be dried fully to prevent it from chilling. Oily material can be removed by rubbing it with clean, warm cooking oil, then wiping it off thoroughly, (ie, remove oil with oil).

If you feel the cat may have ingested any toxin it should be taken to the vet. Even if the contamination is confined to the coat, it is important that the cat should be encouraged to drink as this will help to wash out any absorbed toxins.

After any exposure to possible poisons it is advisable to keep the cat under observation in a warm, quiet room for 24 hours.

Common poisons

In many cases of poisoning in cats, the poison in unknown. However, there are many substances within the home which are potentially poisonous to cats.

Household products

  • Cleaning and hygiene products such as bleach, cleaning fluids and creams, deodorants, deodorisers, disinfectants (particularly phenolic compounds like 'Dettol' which turn milky in water), laundry capsules and concentrated liquids, furniture and metal polishes. Concentrated washing liquids or powders can burn the feet and skin if cats walk through them.
  • Human medicines such as laxatives, aspirin, paracetamol and antidepressants. Paracetamol is often given to cats in a caring but misguided attempt to relieve pain. It is highly dangerous to cats and just one tablet is enough to cause severe illness or death. Signs of poisoning include depression, vomiting, swelling of the face and paws and a bluish discolouration of the skin. An effective antidote is available but must be use very soon after the dat has taken the tablet.
  • Motoring products such as antifreeze, brake fluid, petrol and windscreen washer fluid. Antifreeze often contains ethylene glycol or methanol, which are toxic to cats (also found in car screenwashes and de-icers). Many animals find antifreeze sweet tasting, and ingesting even the smallest amount can lead to kidney failure and death, especially in cats. 

  • Beauty products such as hair dyes, nail polish and remover and suntan lotion.
  • Decorating materials such as paint, varnish, paint remover, white spirit and wood preservatives (such as creosote). These can be poisonous if groomed from the coat or can cause burning, blisters or irritation to the skin and footpads or severe irritation in the mouth.
  • Miscellaneous household items such as mothballs, photographic developer and shoe polish.

Always ensure that any of these products are stored safely and spillages cleaned up immediately and carefully. If products are kept in high places where cats can push them off a shelf and then walk through liquids which escape though broken or split containers or tops, then make sure they are secured in closed cupboards.

Never give cats products intended for people (unless instructed otherwise by your vet)

To avoid accidental poisonings:

  • Always keep antifreeze in clearly labelled, robust, sealed containers, away from pets and their environment.
  • Clean up any spills immediately, no matter how small, and make sure pets cannot access the area until it is clean and safe.
  • Always dispose of antifreeze safely and responsibly. Contact your local authority for advice.
 

If your pet shows any of the following signs take them to a vet immediately:

  • Increased urination
  • Increased drinking
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Lethargy (being abnormally sleepy)
  • Appearing drunk and uncoordinated
  • Seizures (fitting)
  • Abnormally fast heartbeat
  • Very fast, shallow breathing

The sooner veterinary treatment is received, the better their chances of survival. If left untreated pets can suffer, and will die.


Pesticides

  • Insecticides (insect killers including ant and wasp killers) such as organophosphates and pyrethroids.
  • Molluscicides (slug and snail killers) such as metaldehyde and methiocarb. Slug pellets are sometimes eaten by cats and should not be used where cats can reach them - liquid formulations are preferable.
  • Fungicides (for treating fungal infections, eg, mildews, rusts, rose black spot) such as thiophanage-methyl and benomyl
  • Rodenticides (rat and mouse killers) such as brodifacoum, difenacoum, chlorphacione and coumatetralyl. Rodenticides are the most common pesticides implicated in poisoning of cats, usually because the cat has eaten poisoned prey. The other pesticides are normally safe for cats when used at their correct working strength, provided that cats are excluded from the treated area until the spray has dried.

Always ensure that any of these products are stored safely and spillages clean up immediately and carefully. If products are kept in high places where cats can push them off a shelf and then walk through liquids which escape though broken or split containers or tops, then make sure they are secured in closed cupboards. When using sprays of pesticides or herbicides in the garden keep the cat in until they have dried.

Dog flea treatment products

Permethrin is found in many spot-on preparations for dogs used for the control of fleas, biting flies and lice (also in some ant powders). Posioning can arise when cats are accidentally treated with such dog flea products or where they groom themselves or other animals treated with the product. Cats may salivate a great deal, be thirsty and have a high temperature and tremors or convulsions – urgent veterinary advice is essential.

See our 'protect against permethrin campaign' and sign our petition to get it better regulated. Please also see our information on treating your cat for fleas.

Never use dog products on cats

Bites or stings

Across the world there is a huge range of biting and stinging animals or insects which could injure a cat. In some cases where these are not rapidly fatal, treatment or an antivenom may be available. Check with your vet.

Plants

There are many commonly-grown plants, both house plants and garden plants, that are toxic or can cause skin irritation. Most cats that go outside do not eat poisonous plants but will nibble grass and other herbs, perhaps as a remedy for digestive problems. However, if cats are kept permanently indoors they may not have access to grass and may try eating other things either out of boredom or to try and access some plant material.

Curious kittens may also sample foliage and because they are small, do not need a great deal to suffer the consequences. The simple answer is to provide a supply of growing cocksfoot grass for the cat, which can readily be grown in a pot or seed tray. Some house plants, such as the Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) are so poisonous that it is unwise to grow them where there are small children or pets in the house.

It is not just growing plants that can be a problem – cut flowers such as lilies (plants of the Lillium species) are highly toxic – not just the leaves but the flowers and the pollen as well. Less than one leaf ingested by a cat can cause kidney failure and urgent veterinary treatment is required to prevent death. Check flower labels for warnings of toxicity to animals.

For full details see our information on cats and poisonous plants.

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