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, or having something spilled onto his coat, or deliberate (feeding the cat baited food etc). 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
Note: Cat-World hasn’t covered all possible poisons listed by the Pet Poison Hotline, which obviously affects results.
How do cats become poisoned?
The most common route is ingestion of a toxic substance orally, other routes of toxicity may 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 medication prescribed to your cat is also a possibility.
There are a number of 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 a number of 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. Organ meats, in particular, should be limited (but not completely withheld) due to the potential for toxicity. Vitamin toxicity can also occur in cats who have been given 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 greater 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. The most common being bated rats or mice. Wild caught meat such as rabbit and kangaroo many contain lead fragments which are toxic to cats.
Dusts (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.
It is not uncommon for cats to be deliberately poisoned by disgruntled neighbours. This type of poisoning may be acute or chronic (over a prolonged period of time such as vitamin toxicity).
Types of poisoning:
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.
Jaundice (yellow mucus membranes) which may be due to liver damage or destruction of the red blood cells (hemolytic anemia)
For cats who have ingested organophosphates or carbamates, which are insecticides, there is an acronym to describe symptoms:
Lacrimation (tearing of the eyes)
Any kind of poisoning should be seen by a veterinarian. 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/or water until you have spoken to your veterinarian.
Do not induce vomiting unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.
If you suspect your cat has been poisoned, seek veterinary attention immediately. 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 are able to. 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 not recommended as it can result in necroulcerativegastritis in cats as well as damage the esophagus in the event that 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:
Complete blood count, urinalysis, and biochemical profile 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.
Treatment will depend on the cause of poisoning, the earlier your cat is seen, the greater his chances of survival. If necessary, your cat will need to be stabilised before your veterinarian begins gastric decontamination-removing unabsorbed poisons and/or preventing further absorption from the cat where possible.
Induce vomiting with xylazine 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 predisposed to 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.
Bathing the cat with warm water and liquid soap to remove dermal contamination.
Surgery or endoscopy may be necessary 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 will be given after gastric decontamination to absorb the remaining poison. Contraindications include cats who are having seizures or cats who are too sedate, to avoid aspiration.
Contraindications may include if the cat is unconscious or if the poison is corrosive.
Anti-seizure medications to control seizures.
Muscle relaxants such as diazepam for muscle tremors.
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.
Gastic 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.
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/or N-acetylcysteine (NAC) may be given to cats who have ingested paracetamol (acetaminophen) which 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.
Make sure you notify any pest control people that you have pets when the house is sprayed. They will be able to offer 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.