Poisoning can occur if a poisonous substance is swallowed (solids or liquids), breathed in (gases) or absorbed through the skin (normally liquids). Poisons are substances that damage the cells in the body. In order to cause harm they must enter or come into contact with the body.
Many poisons are products we use every day and can be found in food, medications, household and garden substances. Accidental poisoning in cats is usually caused by substances we commonly have around the house, e.g. human medications and pest control products.
Almost all cases of poisoning are accidental so the best way to prevent poisoning is to ensure that all poisons are kept out of sight and reach of your pets (and children):
- Dispose of unwanted medicines safely.
- Read the product label and follow the instructions for correct use.
- Ensure lids are replaced correctly to prevent spillage if the container is knocked over.
- Clean up drips and spills promptly.
- Dispose of empty containers and waste food safely.
- Put pest control products in pet-proof containers before putting them out.
Younger animals are more likely to be affected as often chew strange objects. Cats are less likely to be poisoned than dogs as they are naturally more suspicious of novel substances. Cats may be poisoned by licking off substances spilt on, or applied to, their coat.
In many cases of poisoning the owners are aware that their pet has eaten, or been in contact with, something unusual before signs of illness develop. You should be worried that your pet might have been poisoned if they suddenly develop severe clinical signs, or if they become ill with breathing difficulties, seizures or severe vomiting and diarrhoea.
Every poison produces different effects and a poisoned pet may show a number of signs such as:
- Restlessness or drowsiness
- Vomiting or diarrhoea
- Salivation or drooling from the mouth
- Breathing difficulties
- Muscle tremors, twitching or seizures
- Confusion, changes in behaviour or an abnormal reaction to sound or light
- Wobbly gait (ataxia)
- Changes in gum colour to blue, pale or even very red
- Unusual odours or smells (either on the breath or from contamination on the skin)
- Bite marks – poison can result from a bite or a sting
- Burns to the mouth or the tongue
- Irritation or inflammation of the skin
- Foreign material passed in the stools
A rapid response is critical in cases of poisoning. If you suspect that your cat may have been poisoned:
- Protect your pet and remove it from the source of the intoxication
- If you can do so safely, remove any suspect material from the pet’s mouth
- Don’t let other people handle your pet (disorientated or frightened animals may become aggressive and other people may be contaminated with the poison)
- Allow your dog to drink water, which may dilute ingested poisons
- Contact your vet for further advice and be prepared to take your pet and the suspect material or product to the hospital
The sooner a poisoned animal receives treatment, the higher its chances of recovery. If you think that your pet has been poisoned then contact your veterinary emergency service immediately; your pet’s life may well depend on it. It is always better to phone in advance to warn the surgery that you are on your way. This will give them time to prepare everything they need and for you to check that there is someone available at the surgery to help you.
In most cases the best course of action is to get your pet to the veterinary surgery as soon as possible. However, in some cases you may be advised to give some immediate first-aid treatment at home. If your pet is already showing signs of poisoning do not attempt to make it vomit or drink anything but seek immediate veterinary care.
If your pet has a toxic substance on its skin or coat the worst of the contamination may be washed off to reduce further absorption. Protective clothing must be worn and only water should be used. Make sure you do not get contaminated in the process.
If a poison has been eaten in the last 2 hours it may be possible to remove it from the stomach by making the animal vomit. If your pet has swallowed a corrosive or petroleum-based substance, e.g. some solvent-based paints, some toilet cleaners, some drain cleaners, petrol, turpentine substitute (white spirit) do not induce vomiting (as this may cause further damage to the throat if the substance is brought up). Instead wash the mouth and face with water and give milk or water to drink (within 10 minutes of your pet swallowing the substance).
It is only safe to make your pet vomit if it:
- Is conscious
- Is alert or only mildly depressed
- Has an intact gag reflex, ie gags when you place your fingers at the back of its throat
- Is known not to have ingested corrosive (caustic) or petroleum-based substance
Never induce vomiting if your pet:
- Has already been sick
- Is unconscious, very sleepy or depressed
- Has eaten a corrosive (acidic or alkaline) product (highly corrosive products can do more damage if vomited up)
- Has eaten a petroleum-based product (volatile products can do more damage if vomited up)
Do not try to make your cat vomit (unless specifically instructed to do so by your vet), particularly if the agent or timing of exposure is uncertain. If you are able to make your cat vomit or it has already vomited, collect a sample and take it to your vet in case it is required for identification of possible intoxicant.
Never give salt water to make your cat vomit; this is potentially very dangerous and can cause salt poisoning. Washing soda can be used on the advice of your vet – give as big a piece as you can get down the animal’s throat. Place the crystal over the back of your pet’s tongue so that it is swallowed. Your pet should vomit within 5 minutes – if not you can repeat this once. If your pet will not be sick do not keep giving further doses as soda crystals can themselves be poisonous.
Note: It is essential to use washing soda (soda crystals) and not caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) as this is very corrosive and will cause serious injury.
If you have any doubts – do not make your cat vomit.
On arrival at the veterinary surgery someone will assess your cat immediately and make sure that its condition is stable before any other treatments are instigated. Your vet will want to know:
- If your pet has known access to possible poisons
- If so, what poison – is a sample or container available?
- When your pet had access to the poison – how long ago?
- How much was eaten or drunk – how much is missing from the container?
- Has your pet shown any signs of being unwell?
- If your pet is receiving any medication or has any pre-existing medical conditions?
If you are able to take a sample of the poison or any packaging associated with it then this may help your vet to provide the best care for your pet.
One of the most common causes of accidental poisoning in dogs is owners giving human medication to their pet for pain relief. Never give medication to your pet unless instructed to do so by your vet.
Although this painkiller can be bought in any chemist for humans it is extremely toxic to cats. Just one tablet can cause stomach ulceration, liver damage, kidney failure and death. It is one of the most common causes of poisoning in cats.
Cats cannot break down paracetamol safely and toxins quickly build up to dangerous levels. Cats are particularly susceptible to paracetamol poisoning – as little as half a 500mg tablet can kill an adult cat.
The most common active ingredient in slug pellets is metaldehyde. The poison causes excitement and seizures followed by depression and collapse. Avoid the use of chemicals in the garden if you have pets or confine your pets indoors or fence off treated areas.
Many rat poisons contain anticoagulants (such as difenacoum or bromadialone). Cats are most likely to be poisoned by eating a rodent already poisoned. Animals remain well for several days after eating the bait as the poison takes effect. Repeated small doses are more toxic than a single large dose. Signs include depression, weakness, breathing problems, and prolonged bleeding from any minor wounds or abrasions. Poisoned animals can bleed to death without treatment.
Cannabis rarely causes serious side-effects. Most affected animals become excited and may salivate a lot. Sometimes affected pets will seem disorientated and may hallucinate – just as in people, appetite may be increased.
Food stuffs (Raisins, Onions and Chocolate)
Pets can be poisoned by human foodstuffs and these poisonings can be fatal. Raisins (and sultanas, currants and grapes) cause damage to the kidneys, chocolate poisoning affects the brain and the heart, and onion poisoning can cause anaemia. In animals which are susceptible to these poisonings even a small amount (a piece of fruit cake, a few squares of dark chocolate) can have serious effects.
The only native venomous snake in the UK is the European Adder. Snake bites are most common in late spring and summer when the snakes are active. Cats can become unwell very quickly after an adder bite with pain and progressive local swelling. Treatment often includes administration of antivenom.
Permethrin flea treatment (Bob Martin) for dogs
Many flea treatments for dogs contain permethrin. Cats are usually poisoned when their owner treats them with the dog formulation by mistake or when a cat comes into contact with a treated dog. Affected cats become excited and may develop seizures. Without supportive care these cats can die but can recover if treatment is begun quickly enough. Recovery can take several days.
Plant poisonings are more common in cats than in dogs. In particular, indoor cats will often nibble at house plants. Lilies (including Easter lilies, stargazer lilies, tiger lilies, oriental lilies and day lilies) seem to be particularly attractive to cats. Unfortunately even a little of this plant is extremely toxic to the kidneys. Prompt treatment is essential in all cases of lily exposure.
Anti-freeze (ethylene glycol)
Antifreeze is palatable to cats. The initial signs are very non-specific (vomiting, wobbliness/weakness, thirst) and are easily missed, particularly in cats. These are followed by kidney failure, seizures and coma. Treatment with an antidote may be possible but only if started very soon after ingestion. Most cases of ethylene glycol poisoning in cats have a poor outcome.
In the UK the common toad is relatively harmless but all toads have glands in their skin which secrete unpleasant substances. Animals that have put toads in their mouth show excessive salivation and may paw at their mouth. Usually the signs resolve without treatment (pets may appreciate having their mouth washed out with a hose). In more severe poisonings signs include weakness, limb swelling and seizures.