Common Feline Toxins Part Two: Plants, Pet Products and Chemical Hazards
Dr Caity Venniker, KatKin Veterinary Consultant
Don't let Curiosity Kill the Cat
There are many potential poisons for cats found within the home environment.
In Part 1 we looked at those found most commonly in human food and medication.
In Part 2, we will now focus on those present in plants, pet products and household chemicals.
Feline Toxins found in Plants
Cats and Lilies
One of the most dangerous and commonly seen plant toxicosis in cats is from lilies. With their beautiful scent and appearance, banishing lilies in the home is one of the sacrifices that cat owners must make.
There are many different varieties of lilies but all Lilium and Hemerocallis species must be avoided and never brought into the cat’s environment.(2) The exact mechanism of action is unknown, but the result is rapid and life-threatening kidney damage. (Peace Lily and lily-of-the-valley are not true lilies and do not cause kidney damage, but are still toxic, to a lesser degree. Peace Lily can cause mouth pain, while lily-of-the-valley can cause vomiting and even seizures.)
While the flowers contain the most toxin, the entire plant is considered highly toxic, including the pollen.(2) Remember that your cat does not have to eat the lily directly - pollen can fall and stick to the coat and be ingested during cleaning.
Initial signs occur within hours to days after ingestion and usually start as vomiting, inappetence and lethargy. This progresses to increased drinking and urinating, and occasionally incoordination and tremors.
Immediate treatment is essential, as kidney failure generally develops within 36 – 72 hours.(2) Sometimes the initial symptoms are quite mild, but any suspicion of lily ingestion should be treated as a veterinary emergency, as the longer the interval between ingestion and treatment, the worse the prognosis becomes.
Lily poisoning can be lethal, but early treatment can reverse the kidney damage and save your cat’s life.
Cats and Cannabis
Cannabis and its by-products are becoming legalised in an increasing number of countries worldwide, and its popularity is growing for medicinal use. Legality aside; there are still areas of controversy regarding dose, side effects, interactions with other drugs and health benefits.
While it does hold promising potential for many different therapeutic uses, at this stage these are not entirely understood - particularly for use in animals as limited studies have been done to specifically investigate the impact of cannabis on pets (especially cats), and much of the evidence is at this stage anecdotal.
Another problem is that even where cannabis is legalised, it is in some places unregulated; with a high percentage of its pharmaceutical products being inaccurately labelled with regards to their percentage of active ingredient.(4) Even small discrepancies of concentration have a more significant effect on cats than humans due to their low body weights.
Marijuana toxicity symptoms include lethargy or agitation, vomiting, incoordination, tremors, seizures or even coma.(3) This can occur after ingesting edible products or the plant itself, or after being exposed to smoke. CBD (cannabidiol) oil has been used by holistic vets to subjectively increase comfort in animals, but this can also have adverse effects, including nausea, diarrhoea and sedation.
Cannabis has been used in humans for pain, seizures, anxiety, nausea and appetite stimulation. It is important to remember that there are currently many medications available to treat each of these issues in pets, which are tried and tested, with significant research into both their safety and efficacy. While the future of cannabis in medicine is a very exciting area, at this stage caution should be taken regarding its use and it should never be used in animals without veterinary guidance.
Cats and Aloe Vera
Another potentially toxic medicinal plant is aloe vera. It can cause lethargy, diarrhoea and vomiting if ingested. Most topical products made from aloe are not dangerous as processing removes the poison, but make sure to only use products specifically registered for use in pets.
Are there other poisonous plants I should be careful of?
Other highly poisonous plants include cycads and ivy; and mild to moderately poisonous plants include azaleas, chrysanthemum, hydrangeas and daffodils, among others.
Of course, most cats are unlikely to voluntarily eat plant material; but it is best to avoid any exposure to dangerous plants, especially those with a high level of toxicity, and especially if your cat is young and inquisitive.
Feline Toxins in Pet Products
Permethrin (found in dog flea and tick treatments)
A common poisoning of cats from pet products results from the accidental application of dog-specific flea and tick treatments onto cats. Products containing permethrin are readily available over the counter but are highly toxic to cats.
Toxicosis can even occur after close contact between a cat and a dog that has recently been treated with a product containing permethrin - so if your pets enjoy cuddling together, then an alternative flea treatment is advised.
Signs usually develop within hours but can take up to two days (1) and include restlessness; tremors; seizures and fast breathing. Immediate veterinary attention is required, but with early and aggressive treatment your cat can make a full recovery.
Other Pet Products
Any medication that is not registered specifically for use in cats and prescribed by your vet can be dangerous. Cats and dogs often metabolise drugs in a different way and so their tolerance of medications can be very different (a drug that can be used safely in dogs may be lethal for a cat).
Even topical products (especially ear treatments) can be suitable for dogs but not cats. Special care must be taken to follow prescription as giving drugs in combination (for example anti-inflammatories) can be very dangerous.
Feline Toxins in Household Chemicals
Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol which is highly toxic to cats, even in tiny amounts (such as from grooming contaminated fur). (1) It has a sweet flavour that can easily be disguised in food; and has been used in cases of malicious poisoning. (1)
Toxicosis results in electrolyte imbalances and severe kidney damage. It is absorbed very rapidly, and signs begin almost immediately. Symptoms include vomiting, depression, loss of coordination, increased thirst and fast breathing. Immediate treatment is absolutely essential, as even the earliest intervention may not be successful. The prognosis is guarded, but if treatment is not started within three hours then survival is unlikely.
Rodenticides (Rodents and bait)
Rodent bait is very dangerous to cats - both if ingested directly, or through eating a rodent that has been poisoned. They are designed to be attractive to animals, so even fussy cats may be tempted; and for cats that hunt, affected prey will be compromised and more likely to be caught than if they were healthy.
Rodent bait acts either by disrupting the body’s ability to clot blood, resulting in uncontrolled bleeding (which can present in different ways because bleeding can occur within the body - difficulty breathing can be an indicator of bleeding in the lungs, and dark stools can be a sign of bleeding within the gastrointestinal tract); or by causing neurological damage, resulting in depression, hind limb weakness, loss of coordination and tremors.
Regardless of the mechanism of action, they are extremely dangerous toxins that can be lethal if not treated aggressively.
Other Potential Chemical Toxins
Snail bait and insecticides containing metaldehyde are also very dangerous to cats if ingested. There are pet-friendly versions available for pest control and only these should be used. Ant killer products can also be mildly to moderately toxic so care should be taken with their use. Lead poisoning can also occur - in cats this is most frequently seen during the renovation of old houses that have been painted with lead-based paint. (5)
What should you do if you think your cat has ingested poison?
If you have any concern that your cat may have been poisoned, it is best to go to the vet as soon as possible, as with many toxins the outcome depends on how soon treatment is started.
Poison helplines are also available if you are unsure how to proceed.
While Part 1 and 2 are by no means a complete list of toxins, it is intended to outline those most commonly seen in cats.
By raising awareness of the potential dangers within our homes, we can try to prevent these poisonings from occurring and protect our feline companions.
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- Cannon, M. (2013). Toxins – Common Feline Poisonings. In BSAVA Manual of Feline Practice (pp. 138-141). Gloucester, UK: British Small Animal Veterinary Association.
- Côte, E. (2011). Clinical Veterinary Advisor for Dogs and Cats. (2nd edition). St Louis, USA: Elsevier Mosby.
- Pet Poison Helpline. (2020). Plants. Retrieved from: https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison on 07 February 2020.
- Vandrey, R., Raber, J. & Raber,M. (2015). Cannabinoid Dose and Label Accuracy in Edible Medical Cannabis Products. Journal of American Medical Association, 313 (24), pp. 2491-2493. Retrieved from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2338239
- Blakley,B. (2020).Overview of Lead Poisoning. Merck Manual. Retrieved from: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/lead-poisoning/overview-of-lead-poisoning