It is sometimes said that because cats are fussy eaters they are less easily poisoned than dogs. However, because of their curious nature and the fact that they will groom any substance off their coats and ingest it, intoxication is not that uncommon. Other factors predispose cats to becoming ill once they have been exposed to a poisonous substance; these include their small body size, their ability to hide so that exposure is not immediately evident, and because cats, being specialist carnivores, lack certain liver enzymes, they are unable to breakdown certain chemicals. It is because of this that when cats become poisoned they are perhaps less likely to recover than dogs.
How can a cat become poisoned ?
Cats can be poisoned in a number of ways. Cats can directly ingest a toxic substance either by eating it or by eating poisoned prey. They can also swallow poisons while grooming contaminated fur. Some toxins can even be absorbed through the skin of the cat, (particularly the paws), and a few can gain entry by inhalation.
What signs might warn me that my cat may have been poisoned ?
The clinical signs are very variable and will depending on the particular poison concerned. Many toxins produce gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and diarrhoea), others produce neurological signs (tremors, incoordination, seizures, excitability, depression, or coma), respiratory signs (coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing), skin signs (inflammation, swelling), liver failure (jaundice, vomiting) or kidney failure (increased drinking, inappetence and weight loss). Some toxins act on more than one body system, and so can produce any combination of the above signs. It is important to remember that while most cases of intoxication will cause acute problems, chronic intoxication can also arise, and often proves even more difficult to recognise and treat.
What should I do if I think my cat has been poisoned ?
If you suspect your cat may have had access to a poisonous substance, particularly if it is looking at all unwell, it is important that it be taken to a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible. If the cat is fractious it is usually best to wrap it in a towel and put it in a box to prevent it from hurting itself or you. This also prevents the cat from grooming itself further if there is a poisonous substance on its coat. It is not advisable to try to make the cat sick, for example by giving salt, washing soda or mustard, since none of these compounds work effectively in cats. It is best to call the veterinary practice to warn them that you are coming and give them time to prepare any treatments your cat may need. If you can tell the practice what the cat has ingested this can help them with the treatment.
My cat has got something 'chemical' on its coat, what should I do ?
Only when the contamination is mild and confined to the coat, can the cat may be treated at home. The aim of treatment is to prevent further contamination.
The cat's collar should be removed as it may also have been contaminated. Also, some flea collars contain chemicals which may be harmful to sick cats. To remove chemicals from the coat it is best to clip off contaminated hair and then wash the cat in warm soapy water. It is important to remove as much of the contamination as possible, before washing because the process of washing can increase the absorption of some chemicals. The cat must then be dried fully to prevent it from chilling. Oily material can be removed by rubbing it with clean, warm cooking oil, then wiping it off thoroughly, (ie, remove oil with oil).
If you feel the cat may have ingested any toxin it should be taken to the vet. Even if the contamination is confined to the coat, it is important that the cat should be encouraged to drink as this will help to wash out any absorbed toxins.
After any exposure to possible poisons it is advisable to keep the cat under observation in a warm, quiet room for 24 hours.
In many cases of poisoning in cats, the poison in unknown. However, there are many substances within the home which are potentially poisonous to cats.
Cleaning and hygiene products such as bleach, cleaning fluids and creams, deodorants, deodorisers, disinfectants (particularly phenolic compounds like 'Dettol' which turn milky in water), furniture and metal polishes
Human medicines such as laxatives, aspirin, paracetamol and antidepressants
Motoring products such as antifreeze, brake fluid, petrol and windscreen washer fluid
Beauty products such as hair dyes, nail polish and remover and suntan lotion
Decorating materials such as paint, paint remover, white spirit and wood preservatives
Miscellaneous household items such as mothballs, photographic developer and shoe polish
Insecticides (insect killers including ant and wasp killers) such as organophosphates and pyrethroids.
Molluscicides (slug and snail killers) such as metaldehyde and methiocarb
Fungicides (for treating fungal infections, eg. mildews, rusts, rose black spot) such as thiophanage-methyl and benomyl
Rodenticides (rat and mouse killers) such as brodifacoum, difenacoum, chlorphacione and coumatetralyl
Of these, rodenticides are the most common pesticides implicated in poisoning of cats, usually because the cat has eaten poisoned prey. Slug pellets are sometimes eaten by cats and should not be used where cats can reach them - liquid formulations are preferable. The other pesticides are normally safe for cats when used at their correct working strength, provided that cats are excluded from the treated area until the spray has dried. Concentrates should be stored securely away from pets and children.
There are many commonly-grown plants, both house plants and garden plants, that are toxic or can cause skin irritation. For more information see Hidden dangers of plants. Cats generally require access to cocksfoot grass which they are thought to use as a remedy for digestive problems. If unable to find cocksfoot grass and particularly if they are confined indoors, they may resort to any greenery which comes to mouth. The simple answer is to provide a supply of growing cocksfoot grass, which an readily be grown in a pot or seed tray. Some house plants, such as the Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia) are so poisonous that it is unwise to grow them where there are small children or pets in the house.
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