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Common Cat Toxins

Cats have always been popular companion pets, and according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2013-14 National Pet Owners Survey 45.3 million homes have a cat as pets and the total number of pet cats owned in the U.S. is 95.6 million.  I guess cats are like potato chips, you can’t have just one! 

Last year, Wilderness Animal Hospital, earned certification from the American Association of Feline Practitioners as a Feline Friendly Practice.  Through this certification process, we made changes to improve the experience for our feline patients and their owners when coming in for medical care.  Part of our commitment to our cat patients is educating their owners, and this month I wanted to review poisoning most commonly seen in pet cats.

In vet school, students are repeatedly told that cats are not small dogs.  Cats are not able to metabolize many things as well as other animals.  Because of this, insecticides, specifically, pyrethrins can cause serious problems.  Low concentration products containing 1-2% pyrethrins aren’t a big concern.  Cats will start showing symptoms when exposed to products with concentrations of 5-10% or higher.  The high dose topical flea and tick products labeled for dogs contain 40-50% pyrethrins and cause serious symptoms when applied to cats by mistake. Symptoms of pyrethrin toxicity are primarily neurologic; twitching and tremors that advance to full-blown seizures.  Once a cat starts showing symptoms, you need to take that cat to a veterinarian for control of the seizures and hospitalization that may last days.  If you realize you have applied the wrong product to your cat and the cat isn’t showing symptoms yet, you should try to remove as much of the product as possible by thoroughly bathing with a degreasing product, such as Dawn dishwashing detergent.  The most important message here is only using products on your cat that are labeled safe for cats.

Cats also cannot metabolize pain medications as well as dogs or people. Tylenol or acetaminophen is especially problematic to cats.  It takes less than one regular strength Tylenol tablet to cause toxicity in a cat, and the consequences are severe.   Acetaminophen changes a cat’s red blood cells making the cells unable to carry oxygen.  Initially, they will stop eating, drool and their gums will change from a pink to a blue or brown color.  Untreated cats will go into liver failure and die.  There is an antidote, so immediate treatment and hospitalization are very important.  Above all, remember; never give any medication to your cat that wasn’t recommended by your veterinarian.

Common household products can cause problems in cats. Household cleaners, for the most part, are mostly water but can cause gastrointestinal irritation if ingested.  Stronger cleaning products, such as ultra strength bleaches, concentrated toilet bowl cleaners and drain clearing product are corrosive and can be very irritating to cats.  Liquid potpourri is also very corrosive when a cat is exposed.  If your cat is exposed to an irritating or corrosive product you should try to thoroughly remove the irritant by thoroughly flushing the exposed area with water for 15 minutes if you can prior to bringing the cat to the veterinarian. 
Antidepressant and ADD/ADHD medications are a common cause of poisoning in cats.  One particular medication, Effexor, seems especially attractive to cats. It is important with all medication to make sure it is safely stored to prevent exposure. These two classes of drugs have different modes of action but cause the same symptoms in a cat: agitation, dilated pupils, increased heart rate and sometimes sedation.  If you know your cat has ingested some medication and is not showing symptoms, the best next step is getting to the veterinarian to “decontaminate” i.e. cause the cat to vomit.  One word of caution, in previous years, inducing vomiting at home with hydrogen peroxide was commonly recommended.  However, 25% of cats that are given hydrogen peroxide get severe stomach bleeding.  It is much safer to quickly get your cat to the veterinarian.  If your cat is showing symptoms, hospitalization and further treatment will be required.

Household plants vary in toxicity some cause contact irritation to others can lead to severe kidney failure and death.  If you have cats in your house, you need to carefully choose what plants you bring into your home.  Cats are curious creatures and are very likely to explore plants and often chew on them.  Philodendrons, dieffenbachia, and elephant ear plants cause local irritation, most commonly when the cat chews on the plant and then will drool excessively.  Rhubarb, star fruit, and Boston ivy can cause more serious symptoms, including tremors, seizures and sometimes even kidney damage.  The most dangerous houseplants belong to the Lily family, either the Hemerocallis or Lilium species. If you suspect your cat has eaten any part of a lily type plant or even drank water from the plant’s pot, contact your veterinarian immediately. When aggressive treatment is initiated within 18 hours of exposure, the prognosis for survival can be fair to good.   Unfortunately, if treatment is delayed the end result is often kidney failure and death.  The important message is to do research when bringing a plant into your home.  A good resource is the ASPCA website, which lists plants that are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.

Lastly, on a “lighter” note, cats will often bite into glow sticks.  The liquid in a glow stick is very bitter and irritating to the mouth and tongue.  The liquid isn’t toxic, so “simple” decontamination is all you need to do.  Being that bathing most cats isn’t simple, if you can do it at home, you shouldn’t need a trip to the vet.  To make sure you have removed all of the glow stick liquid from the cat, simply turn out the lights and see if any of the cat glows.

I hope everyone has a great 2014, and contact me with any questions or suggestions for future articles at, or on our website or Facebook page.