There are thousands of potential toxins. Many of these poisons have no antidote and can end a pet’s life. By keeping common household poisons and plants away from pets, the risk of danger is substantially reduced. Unfortunately, accidental poisonings do occur. If a pet is poisoned, immediate care can help save the animal. Do not attempt home therapy without contacting a medical professional for advice.
Introduction: There are many things that are potentially toxic to pets. Numerous household items, such as chemicals, cleaners, medications, plants, and even some foods, can harm cats. In general, if something is bad for a person, it will also be dangerous for a pet. There are, however, some compounds that are safe for humans yet are toxic to animals. The best way to keep a pet safe is to assume that any product that is not known to be harmless is potentially dangerous, and steps should be taken to prevent any pet’s access to it. It is crucial to keep pets away from potential toxins, both inside and outside of the house.
Over 90% of pet poisonings reported to poison control centers occur in the home and result from animals ingesting toxic substances. Do not assume that cats "know" when an item is bad for them. Cats cannot differentiate between harmful and safe substances. As a matter of fact, some of the most deadly substances actually smell good and taste good to pets.
Cats often have greater access to toxins than dogs. Many are allowed to roam outdoors without supervision. They may enter neighbors’ yards and outbuildings. Their curious nature, large territories, and desire to explore expose them to toxins both indoors and outside. Cats can climb into areas and have access to substances that would be out of the reach of most dogs. Also, their grooming habits increase the possibility of accidental ingestion of toxins that accumulate on the fur or feet. In addition, cats are more sensitive to many toxins than dogs. Their relatively small size and inability to detoxify compounds and chemicals result in poisonings from compounds that may not bother dogs.
To help prevent a pet from getting into toxic substances, get down to pet level and look for items that need to be locked up and kept from a pet. When considering a cat’s safety, think of the adjustments one would make for a small child. Inexpensive child safety locks can keep pets out of cupboards and cabinets. Screen doors or locked doors can keep animals away from work areas and laundry rooms that are stocked with poisons. Potentially toxic substances should be locked up, out of sight, and out of the smell zone of a pet. Because cats jump, it is often necessary to lock cleaners and other items into closed cabinets to prevent access.
If a pet gets into a potentially poisonous substance, immediate veterinary attention should be sought. Do not wait to see if the pet gets sick. By that point, it may be too late to intervene. Instead, call a veterinarian immediately. If the veterinarian is unavailable, locate an emergency veterinary clinic or call a poison hotline. The veterinarian may offer advice, such as to induce vomiting, rinse the mouth or skin, or come immediately to the animal hospital. Do not attempt to treat the pet without help. Do not induce vomiting without the veterinarian’s instructions. Improper treatment may actually make the problem worse.
It is very important to save the container and label of any poisonous item that a pet has ingested, chewed, or touched. The containers may list active ingredients, potential toxins, and treatments. For example, if a pet eats rat poison, it is important for the veterinarian to know the exact brand and name of the poison, not just the fact that it was a rat poison. If a pet has consumed plant material, save the leaves, stems, flowers, and branches. Different toxins may be found in different parts of the same plant. The veterinarian has the best chance of administering appropriate therapy if the toxic ingredients can be specifically identified.
Introduction: The following list of potential toxins does not contain all possible toxins for pets. There are hundreds of herbicides, insecticides, household compounds, cleaners, chemicals, poisons, and drugs that can make a pet very ill or cause death. Most reported poisonings in pets are in the categories of insecticides, plants, rodenticides, medications, and house and yard chemicals. This is a list of common poisons that are found in many homes:
Antifreeze: Ethylene glycol is extremely toxic to animals. It is the most common antifreeze used in cars and can also be found in de-icers and some photographic solutions. Consuming tiny amounts can lead to kidney failure and death. The liver breaks down the chemical into crystals that settle in the kidneys and cause severe kidney damage. Ethylene glycol has a sweet taste that attracts animals, so pets may actually chew into containers of antifreeze. Pets will even lick antifreeze off of the driveway if any leaks from a radiator or is spilled during work on a car. Even licking a small amount of antifreeze off the driveway is enough to make a pet very ill. Cats can be killed by consuming as little as 1-2 mL/kg of body weight. This means that a cat can potentially die from drinking less than one teaspoon of antifreeze.
Clinical Signs: The initial symptoms of anti-freeze poisoning appear within 30-60 minutes after consumption. They include vomiting, excitement, tremors, staggering, thirst, depression, and trouble breathing. As the toxic crystals damage the kidneys, additional signs occur. These include loss of appetite, drooling, and inability to urinate. This progresses to weakness, delirium, convulsions, coma, and death.
Prevention: Antifreeze poisoning can be prevented by making sure pets never have access to antifreeze. Closed containers of antifreeze should be stored out of reach of cats. Any spills or puddles should be immediately cleaned up. Open containers should never be left on the driveway when working on the radiator. Animals should be confined if open containers of antifreeze need to sit out for any length of time.
If possible and recommended by the car manufacturer, purchase antifreeze that is advertised as safe for pets and contains propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol. Although propylene glycol has been associated with toxicities in cats, including red blood cell and nervous system changes, it does not cause the fatal kidney damage associated with ethylene glycol.
Gasoline, Kerosene, and Motor Oil: Antifreeze is only one of the many compounds used in engines that is toxic to animals. Gasoline, along with petroleum distillates such as oil and kerosene, is poisonous if it is ingested, inhaled, or comes into contact with the skin. Gasoline removes the fats from the surface of the skin and can be absorbed across the skin into the body. It is also absorbed through the lungs. Animals that ingest these substances or have them spilled on their skin typically also inhale the fumes at the same time. Other common toxic petroleum distillates are paint thinner and charcoal lighting fluid.
Clinical Signs: Signs of gasoline inhalation include flushing of the skin, muscle twitching, depression, dilated pupils, eye irritation, convulsions, confusion or delirium, and death. If the gasoline is ingested, the animal may drool, vomit, twitch, and have convulsions. Damage to the liver and kidneys may result in vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and eventual death. Ingestion of oil or kerosene can cause vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, weakness, depression, and coma. Inhalation of any of these substances can rapidly lead to lung damage and pneumonia.
Prevention: Keep all fuels and petroleum distillates away from pets. Open containers should not be left unattended, and all containers should be sealed and stored in areas inaccessible to animals. Any spills should be cleaned up at once. Oil drained from automobiles should be properly disposed of immediately. Never leave pets with access to drained oil, kerosene, lighter fluid, or paint thinners.
Yard Chemicals: Insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers can be extremely dangerous if consumed by pets. They contain a variety of chemicals that can be ingested directly from the containers. Poisoning can also occur if a cat walks through a recently treated area and then grooms itself. Insecticides account for approximately one-third of all reported animal poisonings. It is important to follow all label directions when using yard and lawn products. Keep empty bottles for a few days so that complete label directions are available in case of poisoning.
Clinical Signs: The signs of poisoning depend on the chemical ingested. They can include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the feces, depression, drooling, rear limb weakness, generalized weakness, respiratory distress, coma, and death. Long term reactions to poisoning can include anemia and changes in white blood cell numbers. Insecticides can also cause skin irritations if the pet walks across recently treated areas of the lawn or contacts undiluted product.
Prevention: Prevention involves limiting pet access to all yard chemicals. Products should be properly diluted before applying to the yard. All manufacturers’ label warnings should be followed. Follow label recommendations regarding water application to recently treated areas. Pets should be kept off recently treated lawns. Make sure the lawn is dry and the product is absorbed before allowing the pet access to it. Keep cats indoors when yard chemicals are being used. Do not ignore the small warning flags placed on recently treated areas by lawn care companies. Keep pets off treated lawns in public areas or neighboring yards. Do not allow pets to play near or drink from run-off ponds or ditches that may contain high concentrations of yard chemicals. Do not allow cats to consume small insects that may have been killed by insecticides.
Cleaning Products and Batteries: All household cleansers should be considered dangerous to pets. Pets may sample open containers of liquids or drink from buckets of diluted cleaners. Kittens may try to play with cleaning buckets or mops saturated with cleaners. They may chew and swallow batteries.
Clinical Signs: The signs of poisoning will depend on the product ingested. Batteries and many cleaners contain corrosive agents that burn any tissue they touch. Animals may have irritated, red, swollen areas around the mouth and throat. There may be vomiting, diarrhea, muscle twitching, weakness, difficulty breathing, and collapse.
Initial home therapy, after discussion with a veterinarian, may include flushing skin burns with water or administering a solution of egg whites in warm water for products that have been swallowed. Acids, such as batteries, may be treated with 15 mLs of milk of magnesia or 4 egg whites per quart of warm water. Ammonia and caustic alkaline products may be treated with egg whites in water, followed by a 1:4 solution of vinegar or lemon juice and water. Detergents should be rinsed off with soap and water if they are on the pet’s skin, or treated with milk, egg whites, and water if swallowed. Antidotes for bleach include milk, eggs, or milk of magnesia. It must be stressed again that it is of critical importance to confer with a veterinarian prior to administering any home remedy. No oral medications should be administered to an unconscious animal or one that cannot swallow. Improper therapy may exacerbate the problem and interfere with further treatment.
Once at the animal hospital, the veterinarian may be able to administer neutralizing agents to control further irritation. Other treatments include intravascular fluid therapy, medications to control swelling and pain, antibiotics, wound therapy, and supportive care.
Prevention: The pet’s access to these substances must be avoided. Bottles of cleansers should be kept in closed cabinets and out of the reach of pets. Diluted cleaning solutions should be disposed of as soon as possible, and buckets should be thoroughly rinsed and dried. Cleaning tools should be stored away from pets. Do not allow kittens and cats to play with or chase mops and brushes that are being used for cleaning. Batteries should be kept in closed containers, and old ones should be disposed of properly. Do not throw old batteries into wastebaskets where a pet may find them. Toilet bowl lids should be kept closed to prevent consumption of contaminated water from the bowl. Dishwashers should be kept closed to prevent ingestion of the detergents left in the dispensers. Pets should be kept off of any wet, recently cleaned areas to prevent exposure to active cleansers.
Anticoagulant Rodenticides: Rat and mouse poisons, called rodenticides, are extremely dangerous for pets. The poisons are designed to kill small mammals. Cats are simply larger mammals and may easily become ill from these poisons. Most rodenticides, including warfarin, fumarin, brodifacoum, and bromadiolone, work by interfering with the production of compounds called clotting factors. Without clotting factors, bleeding occurs with even the most minor of injuries. For example, rodents often bleed to death as a result of a simple bump that would normally cause a just a small bruise.
Rodenticides are equally effective at causing internal bleeding in pets. Small amounts of rat poisons can be lethal. Several small doses consumed over many days can actually cause more severe poisoning than one large dose of poison, but even one dose of an anticoagulant rat poison can lead to massive bleeding. Depending on the actual rodenticide, less than 1 ounce of bait can poison a 10-pound cat. The consumption of rodents that have been killed by rodenticides can also cause poisoning. Cats may kill and consume poisoned rats or eat poisoned dead rodents. There have been reports of cats being poisoned after consumption of just one rat that has died from a rodenticide.
Clinical Signs: The effects can take several days to be noticed. They can include bleeding under the skin, into the eyes, from the nose, near the gum line, or any other place on the body. The cat can pass blood in the urine, feces, or vomitus. The gums and sclera may look very pale. Weakness, changes in respiration, difficulty breathing, depression, and death can follow.
Prevention: Rodenticide poisoning can be avoided by preventing consumption of rat poisons or poisoned rodents. The poison is often flavored or added to grain mixtures that attract both rodents and pets. The plastic or cardboard bait containers are easily torn open by even the youngest kittens. It is safest to totally avoid the use of these substances in households with pets. Humane live traps or spring loaded rodent traps that kill immediately should be used instead of rodenticides. Additional steps, such as keeping food sources in rodent-proof bins and cleaning food dispensers routinely, should be implemented to reduce rodent numbers.
Rodenticides That Do Not Contain Anticoagulants: There are other newer rodenticides that do not contain anticoagulants. These include cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) and a rapid acting single-dose poison called bromethalin. These poisons may cause severe damage to the nervous system, heart, liver, stomach, intestines, and kidneys. Blindness, coma, and death can also occur. There are no antidotes to these toxins.
Older less commonly used rodenticides include strychnine, sodium fluoroacetate, and zinc phosphide. Sodium fluoroacetate is rarely used and only available to licensed, commercial pest control companies. Most strychnine baits available to the general public have been replaced with zinc phosphide. However, all three chemicals may occasionally be found and will cause severe poisonings. Ingestion of rodents killed by these poisons can also cause toxicity in cats. The taste of the baits may attract cats.
Clinical Signs: Cholecalciferol containing poisons produce signs of hypercalcemia, including loss of appetite, depression, vomiting, muscle weakness, and constipation. Renal, cardiac, pulmonary, and gastrointestinal changes are caused by excess calcium deposition. This can lead to death.
Bromethalin rapidly effects the nervous system and causes tremors, incoordination, hyperexcitability, increased body temperature, ataxia, and depression. Large doses lead to seizures and death.
Strychnine causes signs of skeletal muscle excitation. Increased muscle contractions can lead to seizures within minutes to hours. Strychnine-poisoned cats will act apprehensive, agitated, and excited. They may have tremors, drooling, muscle spasms, and collapse. Signs are exasperated by light, motion, noise, and touch. Death can occur following paralysis of the respiratory system.
Zinc phosphide toxicity signs develop within minutes to hours and include changes to the stomach, intestines, heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Affected cats experience abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, depression, vomiting, anxiety, and seizures. Death can occur from an inability of the cardiovascular system to function correctly or from ongoing organ failure.
Sodium Fluoroacetate causes vomiting, nervousness, apprehension, staggering, urination, defecation, seizures, vocalizing, cardiac changes, and collapse. Death often follows.
Prevention: As with all rodenticides, prevention is accomplished by stopping any access to the baits or rodents killed by the baits. Baits are attractive, easily opened, and readily consumed. Cats are curious, agile, excellent climbers, and able to squeeze into narrow spaces. Pet owners should consider these characteristics and abilities when deciding on measures to control rodent populations. Rodenticides should never be placed in any area that a cat may access. It is much safer to avoid the use of rodenticide baits than to try and prevent cats from finding them.
Lead: Lead poisoning in pets can be a relatively common occurrence. Lead can be found in older paints and lead fishing sinkers. In addition, lead is found in many common substances including insecticides, linoleum, shower curtain weights, drape weights, lead shot, putty, ceramics, batteries, and some glazed china. Many pets have chronic exposure to lead caused by chewing on lead-based paint that is chipping off painted surfaces. Some are acutely poisoned following ingestion of lead weights, lead-containing golf balls, or insecticides. While grooming, cats may poison themselves if they swallow contaminated lead paint or dust that has settled onto their coats.
Clinical Signs: Signs may vary depending on the amount of lead ingested and the length of time of exposure. Gastrointestinal signs may include vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, stomach pain, and loss of appetite. Neurological signs are often present and may include whining, nervousness, lack of coordination, wobbliness, depression, blindness, obsessive circling, convulsions, paralysis, and coma that leads to death. Some animals may have pale gums that can indicate anemia.
Prevention: Prevention involves limiting access to substances that contain lead or lead salts. Lead shot, sinkers, and weights should be kept away from curious pets. Insecticides should be locked away. Pets should not be fed on ceramic plates that may be poorly glazed. Lead paints should be replaced with non-toxic paints. Procedures that are followed to prevent lead poisoning in children will also protect pets.
Zinc: Although zinc poisoning is much less common than lead poisoning, zinc has been associated with toxicity. Found in pennies and often in the screws that secure pet crates, zinc can be swallowed by curious pets. Other sources of zinc are cosmetics and ointments that contain zinc oxide.
Clinical Signs/Diagnosis: Signs of zinc toxicity can include loss of appetite, weakness, and depression. Gums may be pale, white, or have a yellow tinge. Vomiting, depression, and lethargy may occur following ingestion of products that contain zinc oxide. Diagnosis is based on signs, a history of exposure, and examination. Owners may have seen the pet swallow items containing zinc or have lost the screws to a carrier. Zinc causes anemia, which can be identified with blood tests. Specific blood tests can demonstrate zinc in the blood. Radiographs may show the zinc-containing items in the gastrointestinal tract.
Prevention: Zinc toxicosis can be prevented by keeping all zinc-containing objects away from pets. Young cats are the most likely to swallow these items, but even older pets are known to consume small objects. Pennies should be kept off the table and floor and stored in closed containers or banks. Zinc fasteners on pet crates can be replaced with plastic ones. Ointments and cosmetics should be kept in closed drawers or cabinets. A few simple precautions can protect pets from zinc poisoning.
Human Medications: Both prescription and non-prescription medications can make pets quite ill. Due to differences in metabolism, some medications used by people are toxic for pets. Even those human medications that are used for pets must be given at very different dosages to pets than people. Human medications, including over the counter remedies, should only be given to pets when a veterinarian specifically recommends the medication and gives an exact dose. In addition, "folk," herbal, plant, homemade, and "natural" remedies can be toxic to pets. Just because a product is made with herbs does not mean that it is not potent and potentially toxic.
Common medications that can adversely affect pets include over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin and aspirin substitutes, lotions, ointments, and prescription medications. Other products include medications for cough, allergy symptoms, diarrhea, constipation, and anxiety. Even human medications that may be tolerated by dogs can make cats ill. Cats are less able than dogs to metabolize and excrete medications, so they are more likely to be poisoned by medications.
Clinical Signs: The signs of illness following consumption of medications can vary depending on the product consumed. Some potential symptoms may include vomiting, drooling, loss of appetite, diarrhea, depression, bleeding, staggering, seizures, coma, and death.
Prevention: Prevention involves keeping all human medications away from pets. Medications should be kept in closed cupboards that pets cannot reach. Old medications should be flushed down the toilet and the toilet should be repeatedly flushed until all the tablets are gone. Do not leave discarded medications in the trash where they can be found by pets. Ointments and lotions should also be stored properly.
Pain medications: Over-the-counter pain medications for people are usually in a class of medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and include medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These drugs should only be used under the direct advice and supervision of a local veterinarian. Used inappropriately, these medications can cause severe toxicity. Cats require much lower doses of these medications than humans do. If treated with the amounts given to people, the animals can become very ill. Even those animals treated at lower doses are at risk for developing a variety of problems, including stomach irritation, stomach ulcers, bleeding, kidney disease, and liver problems. Do not use these medications without a veterinarian’s knowledge and recommendation. Do not increase the dosage or frequency of administration without consulting a veterinarian. Stop all medication and contact a veterinarian if any unusual side effects or signs are noted.
Aspirin should never be administered to a cat without a veterinarian’s advice. Cats are slow to metabolize aspirin, so it lasts approximately six times longer in cats than dogs. If used in cats, veterinarians will prescribe very small amounts given very infrequently. Cats that are inappropriately given aspirin can become ill within a matter of hours and display vomiting, depression, changes in respiration, and fever. These signs may progress to coma and death. There is no antidote and supportive treatment may not be successful.
Acetaminophen is a commonly used analgesic for humans. It is extremely toxic to cats and should never be given to a cat. A single 500-mg tablet will cause severe toxicity in a cat; two tablets within 24 hours will most likely cause death. Cats that are poisoned by acetaminophen show signs with in an hour or two of consumption. Severe damage to the red blood cells causes vomiting, depression, respiratory problems, swelling of the face and extremities, and a muddy, brown coloration of the gums and urine. Treatment involves steps to reduce absorption, the use of an antidote, beta-acetylcysteine (Mucomyst-Mead Johnson), vitamin C, and supportive care.
In summary, never treat an animal with products made for people unless instructed to do so by a veterinarian. All doses of human medications given to pets should be reviewed with the veterinarian. Never increase the frequency of administration or the amount given without a veterinary consultation.
Animal Medications: Pet medications can be toxic if administered at the incorrect dose or if given to the wrong species of pet. For example, some medications used for dogs are poisonous to cats. In addition, the risk of accidental overdose is increased when using highly palatable, chewable medications. Common medications that can cause toxic overdoses include pain medications, heartworm medications, cardiac drugs, and antibiotics.
Clinical Signs: The signs of toxicosis depend on the drug ingested, the amount ingested, and the species of animal involved in the poisoning. Some signs may include diarrhea, vomiting, passing blood in the vomitus or feces, nosebleeds, and loss of appetite. Collapse, neurological signs, coma, and death may also occur.
Prevention: Prevention involves limiting access that pets have to medications. Do not assume that medication is safe because it has been prescribed for one pet. All medications should be kept out of the reach of pets, which may mean storing them in a locked cupboard. Never increase the amount of medication given to a pet without consulting a veterinarian.
Flea and Tick Products: Flea and tick killing products can cause severe, unwanted side effects in pets. These products are available as dips, sprays, shampoos, spot-on topical solutions, and collars. All forms of the products can cause poisoning in pets. Many cases of toxicity caused by these insecticides could be avoided if label directions are followed exactly. Label directions will list the species that the product is intended to be used for, the amount to use, the method of administration, the frequency of administration, and the active ingredients.
Because a manufacturer may give the same name to products with different ingredients, labels may be confusing. A flea product made for cats may have the same name as a flea product with different ingredients made for dogs, with only the word "cat" replacing "dog" on the new product label. This can be extremely dangerous, because many dog flea and tick products are toxic to cats. This is true of flea spot-on products that use highly concentrated permethrin as the active ingredient. Cats have been poisoned by rubbing against, sleeping next to, or grooming a recently treated dog. Cats that are erroneously treated with the products can die from the poisoning. Always read labels carefully. Do not ever use an insecticide labeled for a particular species of animal on another species without consulting a veterinarian.
Clinical Signs: The signs of flea and tick product toxicity may include tremors, salivation, depression, skin irritation, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, incoordination, and seizures. Difficulty breathing, coma, and death can follow. Signs often appear within minutes after using the product.
Prevention: Careful use of flea and tick products can prevent accidental poisonings. All label directions should be read and followed carefully. Do not use the products on sick, debilitated, pregnant, or nursing pets without a veterinarian’s advice. Do not use products more frequently or in greater amounts than the label advises. Do not use dog products on cats. Do not use products on pets that are younger or weigh less than the minimums listed on the label. Keep all product packages out of the reach of pets to prevent accidental exposure or consumption. Trim flea and tick collars so that pets cannot chew on any excess left hanging from the collar. Avoid the use of collars on young animals that pull and chew on the collars. Consult a veterinarian if questions arise about a product before using it.
Do not use insecticides intended for yards, lawns, plants, rugs, or houses on pets. Even if the products list ingredients that are similar to pet flea and tick remedies, those made for use on inanimate objects or in the environment are typically much more potent than those designed to be used on pets. Do not use any chemicals designed to kill other insects, such as ants, bees, or cockroaches, on pets. Exposure to any of these products through contact or consumption can cause severe poisonings. Signs, diagnosis, and treatment are similar to those for pet flea and tick products. Do not allow pets near recently treated areas and follow all label directions regarding proper use and ventilation after use. Do not allow pets to contact any areas that are still wet from insecticides. Remove all pets from the house during treatments with flea foggers or sprays. Never use these chemicals in place of flea and tick products labeled for use on pets.
Chocolate: Many animals love the taste of chocolate. However, chocolate contains a stimulant called theobromine that causes over-stimulation of an animal’s body. All body systems, including the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, and nervous system, are affected by theobromine. The more concentrated the chocolate, the larger the amount of theobromine present and the greater the risk to pets. Unsweetened baker’s chocolate is much more dangerous than chocolate ice cream. Baking chocolate contains approximately nine times as much theobromine as milk chocolate.
The toxic dose of chocolate for a cat is 100-300 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (approximately 45-136 mg/lb.). This means that about 1 ounce of milk chocolate per pound of body weight can make a cat ill. In contrast, it only takes less than 1/2 ounce of semi-sweet chocolate per pound of body weight, and as little as 1/8 ounce of baker’s chocolate per pound of body weight to poison a cat.
Clinical Signs: The signs of chocolate intoxication vary, but can include vomiting, diarrhea, nervousness, pacing, frequent urination, muscle tremors, rapid breathing, and a rapid heart rate. Seizures, depression, and death can result from the consumption of large amounts of chocolate. Symptoms depend on the amount and type of chocolate eaten, as well as the size of the cat.
Prevention: Chocolate toxicosis can be prevented by keeping all forms of baking chocolate, chocolate candy, and baked items that contain chocolate away from pets. Do not share chocolate foods with pets. Use chocolate-flavored substitutes when cooking treats for pets. Do not assume that tiny bits of chocolate are okay for a pet. One cannot be sure how even small amounts will effect an animal; all chocolate should be kept away from pets.
Garbage: Rotting and spoiled foods are an excellent source of toxins. Bacterial overgrowth in decaying meats and dairy products can lead to poisoning of cats that ingest them. Clostridium, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Yersinia are some of the bacteria that will rapidly multiply in rotten foods. In addition, toxins from the bacteria can produce severe illness and lead to death. Animals that are fed old garbage or spoiled "left-overs" may be poisoned. Meat and dairy products left in compost piles also contribute to this type of poisoning. Pets that have access to and consume the carcasses of dead animals may also become sick.
Clinical Signs: Signs include severe vomiting, diarrhea (with or without the presence of blood), dehydration, nausea, pain, and collapse. Clostridial toxicosis can cause paralysis, coma, and death. Other bacterial toxins may cause wobbling, difficulty breathing, and convulsions.
Prevention: Prevention is accomplished by keeping cats away from spoiled and rotting foods. Kitchen waste should be kept out of the reach of pets. Garbage cans should be tightly sealed and inaccessible to pets. Pets should not be fed old or decaying foods. If the food is considered too old for a person to consume, it is too old to be fed to a pet. In addition, meat and dairy products should not be added to compost piles. Decomposing meat and cheese not only attract rodents but also are a major source of toxins for pets that dig through the compost and consume the foods. Cats should not be allowed to consume road kill and the carcasses of dead animals.
Introduction: There are many different plants both inside and outside the house that can be toxic to pets. There are over 700 plants in the United States that are known to cause illness; these plants contain hundreds of different types of toxins. Many common household plants contain chemicals that are toxic if consumed. Others contain toxins that can irritate skin and mucus membranes. Typical poisonous plants that may be found in a home include iris, philodendrons, jack in the pulpit, and rubber plants. Common yard vegetation that is very poisonous includes oleander, laurel, yew, and azalea. It may be necessary to keep only non-toxic plants, such as oat grass, in the house if a pet is likely to chew. This is often the case with young, bored cats but not typically a problem with older, well-adjusted animals.
It can be very difficult to keep all poisonous plants away from cats. Steps should be taken to remove poisonous plants from the house and yard. Because different plants may produce similar signs of poisoning, yet require different treatments, it is critical to save all remaining parts of a plant that a pet has ingested. These plant parts may be needed for identification to decide if an antidote is available and to choose the proper course of treatment.
There are many books written on poisonous plants. It would be a wise idea to keep an illustrated book of common poisonous plants. This will aid in identification in case of accidental poisoning.
Clinical Signs: The signs of plant poisoning depend on the plant that has been chewed or consumed. Signs may include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, twitching, nervousness, coma, and death. The most common houseplant poisonings occur after ingestion of plants in the family Areaceae. Plants in this family, including dieffenbachia, philodendron, elephant’s ear, and rhubarb, contain irritating calcium oxalate crystals. If chewed, the crystals cause salivation and swelling of the mouth, tongue, and throat. The pet may not be able to swallow, have blisters, and difficulty breathing. Eye and skin irritation can occur if the plant juices touch these areas. Other plants cause different signs that correlate to the body organs or system that are affected by the particular plant toxin. Some plants affect only one body system; others affect multiple organs and cause many signs of illness.
Prevention: Prevention is accomplished by denying access to poisonous plants throughout a pet’s environment. If a pet insists on chewing plants, provide ones that are harmless. Plants should be hung up or kept out of the reach of cats. Because cats are adept at climbing and jumping, it may be necessary to keep only non-toxic plants, such as oat grass, in the house if a cat is likely to chew.Because many cats enjoy chewing on greenery and digging in the pots of soil, one can purchase pots of pre-planted, non-insecticide-treated grass from pet supply stores and catalogs. Do not assume that all plants with long grass-like leaves or stalks are actually edible grasses. Purchase only oat grass labeled as edible for cats.
Yard plants should be labeled with both common and botanical names so that toxic ones are easily identified in case of accidental ingestion. Yard waste and clippings should be disposed of properly. Outdoor water bowls should be kept clear of potentially dangerous plant clippings and leaves. The easiest way to avoid outdoor plant poisonings is to avoid the use of toxic ornamental plants and shrubs. Do not assume that a plant is safe if birds or wildlife eat it. These animals may have different sensitivities than domestic pets or may actually end up being poisoned as well. Do not allow pets to chew or eat any plant parts, including leaves, stems, and twigs. Do not allow pets to consume mushrooms, nuts, seeds, or flowers.
Common Plant Poisons: There are many different techniques to categorize and identify poisonous plants. The following pages list plants by the body system commonly affected by the poison. Some plants may affect more than one body system and appear more than once. The list does not include all possible toxic plants.
Plants that Affect the Gastrointestinal System: There are many plants that can cause intestinal problems if swallowed. Most cause intestinal upset that is treated symptomatically. There are no antidotes; supportive care should be provided unless noted otherwise.
Poisonous Shrubs - The family Ericaceae, including rhododendrons and azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), are common house and garden plants. Accidental ingestion leads to rapid signs of toxicity. Signs include salivation, vomiting, depression, repeated swallowing, and loss of appetite. Additional signs may include cardiac changes that can result in collapse and even death. Similar signs are seen following ingestion of laurel (Kalmia). Immediate death may occur if a cat eats laurel. Fortunately, most pets will not consume enough to become ill. There is no antidote. Treatment involves supportive care.
Bulb Plants - The bulbs of all garden plants should be considered potentially toxic if consumed. Common ornamental plants that are grown from bulbs include tulips, daffodils, amaryllis, and iris. Cats that consume the bulbs may suffer from abdominal pains, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. There is no antidote. Treatment involves supportive and symptomatic therapy. Most animals survive the poisoning.
Common Plants Grown From Bulbs:
Bean Poisonings - The castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) and the precatory bean (Abrus precatorius) produce beans that cause severe poisoning if ingested. The castor bean must be chewed or opened to cause a problem. The precatory bean is so toxic that the consumption of one bean can be fatal. Both plants may be used as ornamentals and may grow wild in the southern states. Both types of beans may be dried and used in jewelry. The dried beans also cause poisoning if chewed. Signs of poisoning develop several hours after ingestion. Common signs include fever, followed by increased thirst, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, increased heart rate, convulsions, paralysis, and death. There is no antidote. Treatment may include inducing vomiting, gastrointestinal lavage, symptomatic support, and intravascular fluid therapy. Therapy may not be successful in some cases.
Family Solanaceae - There are many plants in this family that are used for food (potato, eggplant) and decoration (Jerusalem cherry, deadly nightshade). All the plants contain an alkaloid toxin called solanine. Pets may be poisoned if they consume the plant or the berries, especially if the berries are not yet ripe. Signs of poisoning include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, some plants in this group cause nervous system problems, including salivation, drowsiness, trouble breathing, trembling, weakness, and coma. There is no antidote. Treatment includes supportive nursing care and symptomatic treatment of signs of toxicity.
Common Plants in the Family Solanaceae:
Potato (if green and/or sprouted)
Walnuts and Acorns - Nuts from the black walnut tree (Juglans nigra), the English walnut tree (Juglans regia), the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum), and acorns from oak trees (Quercus spp.) have all been identified as toxic to pets. Signs are consistent with gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines) and include vomiting and diarrhea, possibly containing blood. Some animals may have seizures. Acorn poisoning may also result in depression, signs of kidney disease, and constipation. There is no antidote for animals that consume these walnuts or acorns. Treatment involves symptomatic and supportive therapy.
English Ivy - Hedera helix is a ground cover that has toxin in both the leaves and berries. Ingestion causes salivation, increased thirst, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Coma and death may follow. There is no antidote. Treatment includes supportive and symptomatic care.
Holiday Plants - There are several ornamental plants and shrubs that are brought into homes during the winter holidays. The brightly colored flowers and berries may attract curious pets that find the new plants interesting. This is particularly a problem with young animals. If ingested, these plants can cause a variety of signs, including diarrhea and vomiting. In addition, the irritating sap of poinsettia and other members of the Euphorbia family can cause irritation of the eyes, tongue, skin, and gastrointestinal tract. Treatment involves rinsing off any irritating sap, along with supportive care and fluid therapy. There is no antidote.
Common Poisonous Holiday Plants:
Crown of Thorns
Snow on the Mountain
Berries - Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) berries can cause diarrhea if consumed. Uncooked elderberries can cause severe diarrhea. There is no antidote. Treatment involves symptomatic and supportive nursing care.
Plants that Cause Mouth and Tongue Irritation:
Family Araceae - This group of common houseplants accounts for the majority of small animal poisonings. Curious, playful, or bored cats chew on the plants and are exposed to the irritating toxins found in the plants. Poisoning is a result of calcium oxalate crystals that form in body tissues, along with enzymes that cause histamine release. This results in immediate and severe signs of local irritation and inflammation. Signs include salivation, mouth pain, swollen tongue and lips, pawing at the face and mouth, and loss of voice due to vocal fold swelling. Swelling of the tongue may last for several days and cause the tongue to protrude from the mouth. Severe signs that require emergency care include swelling in the throat and mouth that interferes with breathing. If the sap lands on broken skin, mucus membranes, or the eyes, irritation will result, causing dermatitis and eye irritations. There is no antidote. Treatment includes the use of drugs to reduce swelling, such as antihistamines and corticosteroids, along with supportive therapy. Emergency care may be required to save the animal’s life.
Common Plants that Contain Oxalates:
Jack in the Pulpit
Plants that Cause Mechanical or Contact Injury:
Nettles - There are plants that protect themselves with small, hair-like projections that contain irritants such as histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid. Cats that run through these plants can pick up enough nettles to cause signs of toxicity. These signs include salivation, mouth pain, pawing at the mouth, tremors, vomiting, low heart rate, difficulty breathing, and muscle weakness. Treatment may include the use of atropine as an antidote, along with symptomatic care to reduce inflammation/irritation and supportive therapy.
Common Plants that Cause Irritation:
Plants with Mechanical Means of Injury - In addition to cacti, there are many plants that use barbs, spines, awns, burs, and hooks to avoid being eaten or to attach their seeds to passing animals for dispersal. Although these plants do not carry toxic agents, they can harm pets. These small foreign objects can cause mechanical injury by embedding into animals. Many awns are equipped with barbs that allow them to move forward only; they cannot be pulled out of the skin by the animal. They can migrate through the skin, nostrils, ears, and other body orifices or be inhaled. Common sites of entry include the ears, nostrils, and eyes. Once in the body, the awns can migrate anywhere. Signs depend on the body system affected and can include drainage from the nose, sneezing, facial rubbing, head shaking, difficulty breathing, mouth or eye inflammation and irritation, abscesses and draining tracts, and lameness. Treatment involves identifying and removing the foreign object and treating any wounds or infections that result.
Common Plants that Cause Mechanical Injury:
Plants that Affect the Nervous System: There are many plants that have toxic effects on the nervous system. They may block nerve impulses, cause convulsions, alter behavior, interfere with muscle activity and breathing, or cause immediate death. There are no antidotes. Treatment involves taking steps to prevent absorption and speed elimination, along with supportive care. Some of these toxicities cannot be successfully treated.
Plants that Cause Nicotine-Like Actions - These plants contain either nicotine or similar substances that cause nausea, vomiting, salivation, diarrhea, and nervous system signs of shaking, convulsions, muscle twitching, weakness, and collapse. If large amounts are consumed and the nervous system is depressed, difficult breathing and a low heart rate may precede heart failure, coma, and death. Treatment involves removal of the plant material from the digestive tract, along with supportive care to ensure breathing and cardiac function until the toxin is eliminated from the body.
Common Nicotine-Like Plants:
Convulsants - This group of plants causes convulsions. There are no antidotes. Treatment involves symptomatic and supportive care.
Common Plants that Cause Convulsions:
Plants that Alter Awareness - This group of plants contains substances that can cause an altered mental or behavioral state in pets and people, and may cause other signs of illness in pets. Signs may include depression, muscular incoordination, respiratory depression, and a decrease in body temperature. Large quantities can cause the animal to become unconscious. Some plant toxins may cause blurred vision, vomiting, diarrhea, and cardiac and respiratory distress. Others cause delirium, convulsions, and coma. There are no antidotes. Supportive nursing care and symptomatic treatment are the mainstays of therapy.
Common Plants that Alter Awareness:
Plants that Affect the Heart and Circulatory System:
Plants that Cause Cardiovascular Changes - Several plants contain chemicals that rapidly and significantly affect the heart. Signs initially may include immediate nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. At times, gastrointestinal signs are delayed for several hours. Respiratory distress may follow. Cardiac effects include changes in heart rate and rhythm that culminate in death. Treatment involves drugs that would be used to treat an overdose of the cardiac medication, digitalis. This may include intravascular fluid support and correction of electrolyte abnormalities. Potassium chloride, atropine, phenytoin, oxygen, and cardiac drugs such as propranolol or procainamide are also used. Treatment may not be adequate to save the pet.
The most lethal shrub in this group is oleander. Minute quantities of the plant can be lethal if ingested. There have been reports of fatalities in people after using the branches as hotdog sticks.
Common Plants that Affect the Heart:
Plants that Contain Cyanide - This group of plants causes death by interfering with oxygen transfer from the blood to body tissues. Oxygen is unable to travel from the blood into the cells. Most of the cyanide in the plants is located in the seeds, but poisonings have been reported from ingestion of other plant parts. Signs of toxicity include apprehension, urination, defecation, muscle spasms, convulsions, labored breathing, dilation of the pupils, coma, and death. Death may occur very rapidly following ingestion of cyanide-laden seeds. Treatment involves the use of antidotes containing sodium nitrate or sodium thiosulfate and steps to remove the plant material from the gastrointestinal tract, along with supportive and symptomatic care.
Common Plants that Contain Cyanide:
Yew - There are several varieties of yews (Taxus spp.), including American yew, Japanese yew, English yew, and Western yew. The Japanese yew, valued as an ornamental shrub, is an evergreen with red, berry-like fruit. The fruits, bark, and leaves are extremely toxic. Very small amounts can cause immediate death. The toxin, an alkaloid, may cause sudden death by stopping the heart. The plant may still be in the mouth when death occurs. Other signs may include trembling, muscular weakness, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, and collapse. There is no antidote. Treatment involves supportive and symptomatic nursing care.
Mushroom Poisoning: There are over 3,000 species of mushrooms, most of which cannot be identified without microscopic examination. Because most pet owners are unable to identify individual mushroom species, all mushrooms should be considered toxic to pets. Mushrooms and toadstools contain a number of toxins that can cause gastrointestinal and nervous system problems. Signs of poisoning depend on the particular mushroom consumed and include severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, irregular pulse, and difficulty breathing. Central nervous system signs include excitement, drowsiness, muscle spasms, coma, and death. Surviving animals may suffer from chronic liver damage and require long term therapy. Treatment includes steps to reduce absorption, such as the induction of vomiting and gastric lavage, and the use of medications (possibly chlorpromazine and physostigmine) to control specific signs.
Common Poisonous Mushrooms:
Poisonings Caused by Animals:
Toad Poisoning: There are presently two species of poisonous toads in the United States. These two toads, Bufo alvarius and Bufo marinus, are found in Florida, Hawaii, and the southwestern United States. Problems occur when pets play with, chew on, or try to swallow the toads. The toads secrete toxins from glands located above and behind the eyes. Toads sitting in water dishes may secrete enough toxin to cause illness in a pet that consumes the water.
Clinical Signs: Signs of toxicity include drooling, spitting, vomiting, and pawing at the mouth. The drool may be foamy and have the consistency of shaving cream. Continued exposure can cause cardiac abnormalities that lead to breathing difficulty, cyanosis of the mucus membranes, irregular heartbeat, collapse, convulsions, and death within one hour.
Prevention: Prevention involves preventing exposure of cats to the poisonous toads. Cats should not be allowed to play with or catch toads.
Salamander Poisoning: The California newt, Taricha torosa, secretes a poison that can cause poisoning if the newt is picked up or swallowed by a pet.
Clinical Signs: The poison causes weakness, incoordination, vomiting, diarrhea, and paralysis.
Prevention: Prevention involves limiting pets’ access to lizards and salamanders. Pets should not be encouraged to play with or hunt lizards and salamanders.
Snakes: Venomous snakes in the United States include the pit vipers (copperheads, water moccasins, rattlesnakes) and coral snakes.
Clinical Signs: Signs may vary in intensity depending on the amount of venom injected into the bite, the size of the snake, the venom’s toxicity, and the species of snake involved. The toxin may effect the nervous system, the blood system, or both. All bites produce severe local pain, swelling, hemorrhage into the skin, and local paralysis. Animals generally exhibit nausea, vomiting, bleeding from the nose, and blood in the stool. The bites of the pit vipers produce similar effects, including local tissue damage, red blood cell changes, clotting abnormalities, and cardiovascular changes leading to shock. Signs of a coral snake bite may include local swelling, severe pain, difficulty breathing, and paralysis of muscles resulting in salivation, inability to swallow, total paralysis of the extremities, eyelid paralysis, and collapse. If left untreated, animals will suffer from convulsions, coma, and death.
Prevention: Snakebites can be prevented by keeping pets away from snakes. Do not allow pets to wander freely and keep pets out of areas that are good snake habitats. Most snakes will leave an area if given the opportunity to escape, so do not allow pets to surprise or corner snakes.
Copyright 2010 Abbott Animal Hospital. All rights reserved.