Signs of Poisoning in Cats: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Signs of Cat Poisoning Feature Cat Sniffing Aerosol Cans

Cats tend to be less susceptible to poisoning than dogs: they tend to be fastidious eaters, avoiding anything that they are not sure about, whereas dogs are more likely to wolf down anything in front of them.  Nonetheless, cats do sometimes eat toxic substances, and they can be exposed to poisons in other ways. too.

Keep reading to learn the signs of poisoning in cats and what you can do to help.

What Are Poisons?

A poison is defined as a substance that is capable of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed. People tend to think of poisons being substances that are eaten, but they can also be absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or injected.

What Effects Do Poisons Have On Cats?

The general principle is that a poison damages part of the body. Each different type of poison has a different consequence, depending on which part of the body it affects. 

How Can Cats Be Poisoned?

How do cats get poisoned? Household cleaners are one common cause.

Cats can be poisoned in a wide variety of ways, with the ingestion of household chemicals among the most common causes.

  • Malicious poisoning, due to the deliberate placing of poison bait to harm cats. This only happens rarely. The poison may be placed in a formulation that is palatable to cats, in a place where they are likely to encounter it. 
  • Accidental ingestion is far more common: e.g. a cat may find a poison that has been left out to control rodents.
  • Cats are prone to poisoning by grooming themselves following contamination of their fur by a poison e.g. if a cat has certain types of chemical or oil spilled onto their coat, they will clean themselves by licking it off, leading to poisoning.
  • Inhalation of toxic fumes e.g. carbon monoxide can cause poisoning.
  • Poisons can be injected e.g. the humane euthanasia of a cat by a veterinarian is technically a form of poisoning.

What Are The Signs Of Poisoning In Cats?

The specific effects of one poison can be very different from another, from kidney failure to seizures to unconsciousness to gastroenteritis. The list of possible signs of poisoning in cats is very long, depending on the mode of action of the poison.

In general, there are two occasions when cat carers should suspect poisoning.

  • First, when a cat has had known contact with a specific poison of some kind.
  • Second, when a cat develops sudden onset signs of illness, with no obvious cause.

In both instances, the assistance of a veterinarian should be sought without delay.

General Symptoms Of Poisoning In Cats

Signs of poisoning may include collapse, seizures, dullness, inappetence, increased excessive thirst, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, muscle tremors, altered behavior, as well as other more subtle signs such as reduced urination,  low blood pressure, slow or rapid heart rate.

Common symptoms relate to the specific damage caused by the poison e.g. liver failure, kidney disease, or gastrointestinal irritation.

Causes Of Poisoning In Cats

Cat looking at pills as a common cause of poisoning in cats

Causes of poisoning in cats are wide-ranging, including the ingestion of human medications. Avoid giving your cat human medications as an alternative to veterinary drugs.

The broad groups of possible poisons for cats include the following:

  • Household products including anti-freeze (ethylene glycol), paints, household cleaners including bleach, oils, solvents, cleaning products, wood preservatives, and disinfectants. Some of these household items may be ingested by cats (e.g. antifreeze poisoning is common after anti-freeze is spilled on the garage floor, and a cat licks it), but in most cases, it’s more likely that the cat’s coat will be contaminated by spilled product, and the cat will ingest the poison while self-grooming. 
  • Garden products like slug bait, weedkillers, and other pest control products. Slug bait pellets are one of the most common poisons, as they are palatable to cats, and they are often left in open areas like vegetable gardens: even a brief nibble of such products can be fatal.
  • Rodent control poisons, also known as rodenticides, are often palatable to cats.
  • Human foods that cat carers may not expect to cause problems but which in fact may be highly toxic to cats e.g xylitol, alcohol, onions, and garlic.
  • Poisonous plants that are highly toxic to cats include common houseplants like Easter Lilies, Azaleas, and tulips.
  • Human medical drugs are sometimes given to cats by cat carers, and sadly these are a common cause of serious illness and death in cats. Examples include anti-inflammatory medication such as paracetamol (acetaminophen), ibuprofen and other over the counter products, 
  • Veterinary drugs including products like dog flea treatments (including permethrin) and other over-the-counter parasite control products from pet shops and supermarkets.
  • Recreational drugs including marijuana and cocaine.

What To Do If Your Cat Is Poisoned

If you know for sure that your cat has just been exposed to a poison of any kind, you must contact your veterinarian immediately.

Prompt removal of the poison before it affects the cat is the best approach. This can mean washing the cat using a special technique (if the poison is on the coat) or inducing vomiting (if the cat has eaten some types of poison) or decontaminating the digestive tract in other ways, for other poisons.

If you only discover that your cat has been poisoned when they show signs of poisoning, you also need to take them to your vet as soon as possible: prompt treatment can be life-saving.

Treatment of Poisoning in Cats

Veterinarians often work with poison control centers, using a pet poison helpline, to obtain specific detailed advice for the treatment of individual poisons.

  • Antidotes. Only a few poisons have specific antidotes: examples include some types of rat poison. Your vet will guide you as to when this is appropriate.
  • Emetics. If the poison has recently been eaten, the induction of vomiting by an emetic given by your vet is an effective way of emptying the stomach and removing the poison. This has to be done within two hours of the poison being eaten, which is why it is so important to rush your poisoned cat to the vet.
  • Gastric lavage. In some cases, gastric lavage (“pumping the stomach out” under anesthesia) may be suggested by your veterinarian.
  • Gastrointestinal adsorbents such as activated charcoal are sometimes used to reduce the absorption of certain poisons from the digestive tract/
  • Colonic lavage may be used to flush poisons out of the lower part of the digestive tract in some cases.

Cat Poisoning Prevention Tips

The best way to prevent poisoning in cats is to ensure that all possible toxins are kept out of cats’ reach. This involves careful storage of all poisonous products, the exclusion of toxic plants from homes, and keeping cats away from areas (such as gardens, garages or backyards) that may have poisons in use. Websites like the ASPCA include lengthy listings of many possible poisons. Safe cat care includes being cautious to ensure that cats are never exposed to items that can cause poisoning.

Pete Wedderburn DVM

About Pete Wedderburn DVM

Dr Pete Wedderburn qualified as a vet from Edinburgh in 1985 and has run his own 4-veterinarian companion animal practice in County Wicklow, Ireland, since 1991. Pete is well known as a media veterinarian with regular national tv, radio and newspaper slots, including a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph since 2007. Pete is known as "Pete the Vet" on his busy Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages, regularly posting information on topical subjects and real-life cases from his clinic. He also write a regular blog at www.petethevet.com. His latest book: “Pet Subjects”, was published by Aurum Press in 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *