What are the commonest poisons for cats?

Cats eyesCats are far more vulnerable to poisoning than humans – or even dogs – are. Although they aren’t as likely as a dog is to eat something toxic on their own (although there are exceptions), they will lick things off their fur that even dogs would refuse to touch. In addition, they are at risk from a number of poisons that too many owners just aren’t aware of. Part of the problem is that people sometimes treat cats as if they were small dogs (for instance, permethrin toxicity) or, worse, tiny humans (paracetamol poisoning). They’re not – cats are cats, and it’s important to remember that when giving them medicine, leaving things lying around, or even decorating your house.

Why are cats so vulnerable to toxins?

Firstly of course, their size. There’s no poison so deadly that a single molecule can kill an animal or a person (this claim is often made about ricin, but it’s an urban myth!). However, the smaller the animal, the less of the substance is needed to cause toxic, or even fatal, effects. Cats are, on average, significantly smaller than dogs, so smaller quantities of a toxin will produce visible, or fatal, results.

In addition, cats’ livers are really, really bad at breaking down many toxic chemicals. Humans are very good at this, dogs are fairly good, but cats are, frankly, rubbish. They’re simply not evolved to cope with strange new chemicals – unlike us or wolves, who are adapted to try new things and cope better with the results. Truly curiosity can – and does – kill the cat, far faster than the dog.

How do we know what the most common poisons are?

Through a fantastic institution called VPIS – the Veterinary Poisons Information Service. If your cat (or, for that matter, dog, rat, rabbit or whatever) is poisoned, they’re the people we’ll ring for advice, as they are the world experts on animal poisonings. They also run training courses for vets and (helpfully!) keep a running record of what poisoning cases vets report, so that we know what’s common and what’s rare.

So, what are the top poisons to watch out for?

OK, here are the Big Five:

  • Paracetamol
    • Many people know how dangerous paracetamol is to cats, but it still comes up time and again as a common poisoning.
    • The active drug isn’t all that dangerous, but once metabolised in the liver it becomes lethal as cats find it very difficult to break it down into harmless forms.
    • In dogs and humans, you’d expect to see liver damage in paracetamol poisoning, but in cats typical symptoms are:
      • Damage to red blood cells causing blue or sometimes brown gums, shortness of breath, and collapse.
      • Swelling of the face and paws
      • Dark coloured urine
    • The toxic dose for a cat is as low as a tiny fraction of a tablet. Cats showing symptoms will probably die without urgent treatment – and even with treatment, often won’t survive.
    • If you think your cat may have eaten paracetamol, call us even if they seem fine. It is usually possible to save cats if we can get to them before symptoms appear.Medicines image
  • Permethrin
    • This is a common, safe, and highly effective antiparasite drug – in dogs. In cats, however, it is one of the commonest lethal toxins.
    • Toxicity can result from eating or licking the product, inhaling it, or even touching it; most commonly from owners accidentally applying a permethrin-based dog or rabbit spot on to their cat.
    • The symptoms may not appear for up to three days, but are usually almost immediate:
      • Muscle twitches or tremors
      • Wobbliness
      • Blindness
      • Seizures
    • There are treatment protocols, but often there is permanent or fatal brain damage by the time the cat reaches the clinic.
  • Lilies
    • A popular flower, but also a deadly toxin for cats. Not all species are toxic, but if in doubt, don’t keep lilies in a house containing cats.
    • Cats can be poisoned by licking off pollen from their fur, nibbling a leaf, or drinking water with lilies in it.
    • The toxic component isn’t well understood, but it rapidly causes kidney failure:
      • Increased drinking
      • Decreased urination (usually – in mild cases, increased urination may occur)
      • Vomiting
      • Collapse, seizures and death.
    • Treatment is supportive care – some cats will survive if treated fast enough, and ideally before symptoms start.
  • Ethylene Glycol
    • Commonly found in car antifreeze, this is one of the few poisons that cats will actively drink – because it tastes so sweet.
    • It also results in drunkenness, and then progressive kidney failure (as above).
    • Poisoning can be treated, but once the kidneys have failed they cannot be repaired.
  • Detergents
    • Many detergents, especially but not only those containing benzalkonium chloride, are highly dangerous to cats. This is because once they get on the cat’s coat, the cat is desperate to lick them off.
    • Once ingested they cause severe burns and swelling to the mouth, throat, gullet, windpipe and intestinal tract. This can result in suffocation as the airways swell shut, or death from blood poisoning as damaged intestines rupture.
    • If your cat has been exposed to a detergent, call us immediately and prevent them from licking themselves. This could be by using an Elizabethan collar, or just by wrapping them firmly in a towel until you can get them to us.

If you think your cat has been exposed to any toxin, call us day or night, as it is probably an emergency.

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