Poisoning at a glance
- Poisoning is a life-threatening emergency which requires immediate veterinary care.
- Common poisons include human medications, insecticides, household cleaners, plants and rodenticides.
- Symptoms can vary but may include vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, confusion, lethargy, unsteady gait.
- Treatment depends on the type of poisoning but may include gastric decontamination (induce vomiting/pump the stomach), activated charcoal to prevent further absorption, toxin-specific antidotes, fluid therapy and supportive care. The earlier your cat receives treatment, the better the outcome.
Despite cats having a reputation for being somewhat picky, sadly this is not always the case, and every year many cats succumb to poisoning. Almost all poisonings are life-threatening and require immediate veterinary attention if your cat is to stand any chance. Poisoning can be accidental, such as a cat eating something he shouldn’t, a spill on the coat, deliberate. Poisons can affect many body systems including:
- Cardiotoxin – Toxins which affect the heart
- Neurotoxin – Toxins which affect the nervous system
- Dermatoxin – Toxins which affect the skin
- Enterotoxin – Toxins which affect the intestines
- Hemotoxin – Toxins which affect the blood
- Hepatotoxin – Toxins which affect the liver
- Nephrotoxin – Toxins which affect the kidneys
- Ototoxin – Toxins which affect the ear and vestibular system
- Genitotoxin – Toxins which affect the reproductive and urinary system
- Immunotoxin – Toxins which affect the immune system
Below is a list of the ten most common poisons ingested according to the Pet Poisons Hotline.
The most commonly searched articles on Cat-World are:
Note: Cat-World hasn’t covered all possible poisons listed by the Pet Poison Hotline, which affects results.
The most common route is ingestion of a toxic substance orally, other routes of toxicity include via direct contact with the skin, injection and inhaled.
It is very common for cats to be poisoned by a well-meaning owner who administers a medication which is toxic to the cat, accidental overdose of a drug prescribed to your cat is also a possibility.
There are several human foods which are toxic to cats. It is common to believe that cats won’t consume foods which are harmful to them, but this is not always the case. Avoid giving your cat human foods, and don’t leave food lying around where your cat can get into it. Cats aren’t little people, and they metabolise several foods differently to us.
Inappropriately prepared home diets can also be a problem as they may contain high levels of vitamin D or vitamin A which are both toxic in high doses. Limit organ meats due to the potential for toxicity. Vitamin toxicity can also occur in cats who receive vitamin supplements or cod liver oil. Food poisoning is another common cause of poisoning in cats.
Eating garbage or feeding food which is out of date, improperly stored or improperly handled. While most cases aren’t life-threatening in healthy adult cats, kittens, senior cats and cats, who are immunocompromised are at higher risk. There is a move towards a more natural diet for cats, which is great, but pet owners must take care. I always recommend human grade meat as well as strict hygiene with food preparation and storage.
This occurs when your cat eats an animal who has ingested poison.
Dust (such as lead), chemicals, fumes, smoke, insecticides, gases can all be inhaled causing a variety of toxic and respiratory symptoms.
Poisons which contaminate the coat:
These are absorbed directly through the skin or ingested when the cat licks itself, some examples include paint, chemicals, antifreeze and recently there has been a sharp increase in poisoning from pain relief creams.
This type of poisoning may be acute or chronic (over a prolonged period such as vitamin toxicity).
You may notice from the list below some poisons listed under different categories, that is because some can cause poisoning in more than one way.
- Snail bait
- Plants (lily is a notoriously dangerous plant to cats, and even the smallest amount can be fatal)
- Certain foods, especially human foods can cause toxicity in cats. Common foods include onion, macadamia nuts, garlic, tomato, and chocolate.
- Medications such as aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen. Only ever give your cat medication your veterinarian has prescribed and never give medications to other animals or humans.
- Flea collars
- Metals such as zinc from coins or lead
- Household cleaners including bleach, disinfectants (particularly those containing phenol, which turns white in water), laundry detergent
- Insecticides (to kill ants, wasps etc.) or dog flea products which are highly toxic to cats
- Flea collars
- Snake bite (or insect, spider etc.)
- Medications or drugs
Poisons which enter the eye.
Symptoms may vary somewhat depending on the poison ingested and can affect many body systems including gastrointestinal upset, breathing, urination and the central nervous system.
Gastrointestinal and urinary
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Vomiting, possibly with blood
- Diarrhea, possibly with blood
- Blood in cat stool
- Blood in the urine
- Dark coloured urine
- Increased or decreased urination
- Inability to urinate at all (this can occur in cats whose kidneys have been damaged due to antifreeze or lily toxicity)
Note: Blood in vomit, feces or urine may indicate your cat has developed a blood clotting disorder for example with rodenticide.
Central nervous system
- Muscle twitching or tremors
- Change in behaviour, anxiety, confusion, excitability etc
- Loss of coordination
- Increased salivation
- Loss of consciousness
Breathing and respiration
- Increased heart and respiratory rate (cardiac/respiratory hyperactivity may occur if your cat has ingested a stimulant such as theobromine or caffeine)
- Respiratory distress (difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, shallow breathing)
- Change in gum colour due to cyanosis
- Loss of consciousness
- Extended head and neck with elbows pointed outwards
- Blinking and squinting
- Pawing at the eye
- Watery eye
- Sensitivity to light
- Unusual body or breath odours
- Increased salivation
- Jaundice (yellow mucous membranes) which may be due to liver damage or destruction of the red blood cells (hemolytic anemia)
- Irregular heartbeat
For cats who have ingested organophosphates or carbamates, which are insecticides, there is an acronym to describe symptoms:
- Lacrimation (tearing of the eyes)
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Emesis (vomiting)
Always seek immediate veterinary attention if the cat has been exposed to a poison. In the meantime, remove your cat from the source of poisoning. Call your vet to let them know you are coming in and what poison your cat has ingested. He may give you some instructions over the phone.
- If he has a collar on, remove it.
- Any contamination of the coat should also be removed with a cloth. Do not use soap and water until you have spoken to your veterinarian.
- Do not induce vomiting unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.
Where possible, bring along a sample of the plant or poison (including the packaging) as well as samples of vomit, feces and urine if you can. Call ahead and let your veterinarian know your cat has ingested poison.
Do not induce vomiting unless your veterinarian tells you to do so. The use of hydrogen peroxide is contraindicated as it can result in necroulcerative gastritis in cats as well as damage the esophagus if your cat has ingested a corrosive substance.
A thorough medical history will be required including possible exposure to toxins, any medication your cat is currently on, or has been given. Questions may include:
- Does the cat have access to outdoors?
- What cleaning products do you use in the home?
- If the toxin is known, how much was ingested?
- How long ago was the exposure?
- Was ingestion deliberate, accidental or malicious?
- Mode of ingestion such as inhalation, ingestion etc.
Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination including evaluating the size and shape of the internal organs and checking the respiratory, neurologic, cardiovascular and urinary systems. Tests may vary depending on the suspected poison but may include:
- Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis to evaluate organ function and look for abnormalities in normal values.
- Imaging such as ultrasound or x-ray may be required to look for foreign objects which may have been consumed.
- Blood clotting profiles.
- Arterial blood gas.
- Snake venom test kit if your cat has been bitten by a snake can help your veterinarian identify the type of snake.
Emergency first aid
(Skin or coat contamination)
If safe to do so, remove as much toxin from the skin as possible by bathing and rinsing in mild dishwashing detergent and warm water.
Rinse the eye(s) for 20-30 minutes with tepid water or saline, do not use contact lens cleaning solution which contains cleaning agents.
After emergency treatment at home, proceed to your veterinarian. If you cannot follow the above procedures, take your cat to the veterinarian so that they can follow these procedures.
Treatment will depend on the cause of poisoning, the earlier your cat is seen, the higher his chances of survival.
It will be necessary to stabilise the cat before your veterinarian begins gastric decontamination to remove unabsorbed poisons and prevent further absorption from the cat where possible.
Stabilise the cat:
A catheter will be inserted to allow the veterinarian to take blood samples and administer medications. The following may be necessary to stabilise the cat:
- Anti-seizure medications to control seizures
- Muscle relaxants such as diazepam for muscle tremors
- Gastric protectants such as famotidine if gastric ulceration is a risk
- Blood transfusion may be necessary for cats who have become anemic
- Oxygen therapy in cats who are having difficulty breathing
- Fluid therapy to control acidosis (high levels of acid in the blood), correct dehydration and helps to flush out any remaining toxins from the body
- Bathe the cat with warm water and liquid soap to remove dermal contamination.
- Induce emesis (vomiting) with xylazine or apomorphine to prevent further absorption of the poison if the cat was exposed within the past two hours. This treatment is contraindicated if the cat has ingested a caustic substance, is too sedate or if the cat is at risk of aspiration pneumonia.
- Gastric lavage if inducing vomiting is not possible, your vet may choose to pump the stomach instead. Your cat will be put under anesthesia and a tube inserted into the esophagus and down to the stomach. Fluid is pumped down the tube and into the stomach, which is then removed by gravity, bringing along the toxins with it.
- Surgery or endoscopy for cats who have ingested caustic substances or solid products such as metals which can not be removed via gastric lavage or vomiting.
- Activated charcoal after gastric decontamination to absorb the remaining poison. Contraindications include cats who are having seizures or cats who are too sedate, to avoid aspiration.
Toxin specific or antidotes:
- Antifreeze/ethylene glycol: Administration of ethanol as soon as possible in the event of antifreeze poisoning.
- Zinc: Chelation therapy for cats who have lead or zinc poisoning. This medication combined to lead in the blood and is excreted out of the body via the urine.
- Rodenticide: Vitamin K will be administered to cats who have ingested rat poison. Rodenticide works by blocking the synthesis of vitamin K which is needed by the body to make certain clotting factors.
- Snail bait/insecticides: Atropine may be administered to cats who have ingested snail bait or organophosphates. This drug counteracts the effect of the toxin on your cat’s nervous system.
- Snake or tick: Antivenom will be given to cats who have been bitten or stung by a venomous insect or animal (snake, tick). This life-saving product is obtained from the serum (the straw like portion of blood) of animals (commonly horses or sheep) who have been exposed to small doses of venom and have produced antibodies against the venom.
- Acetaminophen: Vitamin C and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) can be given to cats who have ingested paracetamol (acetaminophen). This can assist with the detoxification and elimination of the toxin.
- Ibuprofen: Medications to protect the lining of the stomach such as ranitidine, cimetidine or famotidine for cats who have ingested ibuprofen.
- Keep all chemicals out of the way of your cat.
- Don’t feed your cat human foods.
- If you have houseplants, make sure they are not toxic to your cat.
- Don’t give your medications to pets unless instructed to do so by a veterinarian and always administer as prescribed. One person should be in charge of giving your cat medication to avoid a potential double-up of dosage.
- Notify pest control that you have pets in the home as they will be able to provide pet-friendly alternatives.
- Do not let your cat roam or hunt.
- Be careful when renovating old houses, lead toxicity can occur when sanding back walls with old paint containing lead.
- If your cat is on medications, have one person in charge to avoid a double up.
- Keep all medications out of reach of cats and never store human and pet medication together.
- Store human medications separately to pet medications.
- Be careful with household cleaners and where possible, try to use cat-friendly products such as white vinegar.
- Clean up any chemical spills immediately.