Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Some substances that are not particularly dangerous for dogs or humans are highly toxic to cats. Cat owners who are unaware of the risks may inadvertently expose their cats to toxins like canine flea control products or over-the-counter pain medications.
Cats can be exposed to toxic agents either by eating them directly or by licking them from their fur. The symptoms of poisoning depend on the toxin and can include drooling, vomiting, lethargy, tremors, and seizures.
If you think your cat may have swallowed a toxin, do not try to make your cat vomit. None of the home “remedies” that have been used to induce vomiting in people or dogs are considered safe in cats. Call your veterinarian or an animal poison control hotline right away.
When you take your cat to the veterinary clinic, also take the package or product label of the substance your cat was exposed to. If your cat ate a plant and you’re not sure of its identification, bring a photo of the plant if possible.
Permethrins in topical flea control products marketed for dogs commonly cause toxicosis in cats. Cats are highly sensitive to these insecticides, which are in the pyrethroid family. Permethrin products are available as spot-on products, dips, and sprays. Cats are typically exposed either directly (by an owner using a dog-strength product on a cat) or indirectly (by contact with a dog recently treated with a permethrin product). Permethrin toxicosis causes tremors, seizures, loss of coordination, and drooling.
Other topical insecticides sometimes cause skin irritation in cats. Cats that lick topical products may react to the taste, so apply these products to an area your cat can’t reach with its tongue, like the back of the head. Read labels carefully and be sure to treat your cat only with products labeled for cats.
A single tablet of acetaminophen (Tylenol) can kill a cat. In cats, acetaminophen interferes with the oxygen-carrying ability of red blood cells and causes anemia. Cats with acetaminophen toxicosis may have brown gums, rapid heart rate, and lethargy. Ingestion of acetaminophen is a medical emergency in cats.
Cats do not process nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) the same way that humans and dogs do and are more likely to experience adverse effects. Examples of these pain relievers are ibuprofen, carprofen, naproxen, etodolac, and meloxicam. Cats that ingest NSAIDs may develop stomach ulcers, kidney failure, or seizures.
The antidepressant medication venlafaxine (Effexor) is a relatively common cause of toxicosis in cats. According to ASPCA Animal Poison Control, cats will readily eat venlafaxine capsules. Other antidepressants can also be dangerous to cats. Symptoms of toxicosis are dilated pupils, vomiting, rapid breathing and heart rate, and loss of coordination.
Amphetamines cause tremors, seizures, and heart rhythm abnormalities in cats. Even small amounts of amphetamines in medications or illicit substances can be toxic.
All parts of lilies, including the pollen, cause potentially fatal kidney failure in cats. Lilies that are dangerous to cats are members of the Lilium and Hemerocallis genera, such as Easter lilies, Asiatic lilies, tiger lilies, stargazer lilies, wood lilies, and daylilies. Calla lilies, peace lilies, and Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria) are not “true” lilies and do not damage cats’ kidneys. If your cat is exposed to a lily, seek veterinary care immediately; early treatment improves the prognosis.
Mouse and rat poisons are toxic to all mammals, not just to rodents. Cats are exposed either by eating the bait or by eating the animal that ate the bait. Different rodenticides work by different methods. Treatment depends on the active ingredient, so be sure to bring the product label to the veterinary clinic if your pet has been exposed.
Anticoagulant rodenticides cause fatal internal bleeding by preventing blood from clotting. Bromethalin rodenticides cause lethal nervous system damage. Rodenticides containing cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) cause calcium-phosphorus imbalance that leads to kidney failure. Zinc and aluminum phosphide baits cause toxic gas to build up in the digestive tract (toxic fumes in vomit are also dangerous to anyone nearby).
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Photo by Federica Diliberto