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The Perils of Poison
By Carina Norris

Cats are generally sensible creatures - but nevertheless they can become victims of poisoning. Would you know the warning signs? Would you know what to do if you suspected that your cat had been poisoned?

If they become bored, indoor cats may decide to nibble the houseplants. Although they are unlikely to be attracted to the cupboard where you keep household chemicals, they can be poisoned if something is accidentally spilled and they get the chemicals on their paws. Cats are clean creatures and may attempt to lick the offending chemicals off their pads or fur - with dangerous consequences. Some chemicals may also be absorbed through the cat's skin.

House plants

Cats seem to be naturally drawn to greenery in the house, particularly if they are not allowed outside, but many house plants are poisonous. Some will just make your cat sick or make his mouth sore, but others are more dangerous, so you should ban ivy, amaryllis, azalea, cyclamen, hyacinth, iris, poinsettia and philodendron if you own a cat.

Put a pot of grass from the garden on the windowsill, and then your cat will have something safe to nibble.

Free-roaming felines

Outdoor cats have many more opportunities to pick up poison. You may be very careful yourself and make sure that you always keep the garden shed and garage out of bounds to your cat but your non-cat owning neighbours may not. Antifreeze, curiously enough, is very attractive to cats, who will lap it up, so make sure any bottles of it are stored safely, and any spills wiped up.

It is all too easy for a cat to pick up a poison outdoors and unfortunately if he is a free-roaming feline, the first you will know is when he returns home obviously in distress. In these instances you will probably have no idea what has caused the problem.

Slug pellets

Unfortunately, many cats are attracted by the taste of slug pellets, which are obviously very poisonous. Slug pellets generally contain a poison called metaldehyde, which acts on the nervous system and causes cats to become disorientated, to dribble, and become extra-sensitive to noise.

Rat poison

Another problem is a cat eating prey such as mice and rats which have been poisoned. Although cats will rarely eat dead prey, they may happen upon a rodent which is dying, which sadly also makes it easier for the cat to catch.

The most widely used rodenticides are warfarin and alphachloralose, both of which are nerve poisons. Their symptoms include loss of balance and agitation. In serious cases, these toxins cause convulsions, aggression and loss of consciousness. If you suspect your cat has swallowed rat poison, keep him warm and try to keep him alert, which will help him to metabolise the poison until you can get him to the vet.

Human pills

NEVER be tempted to give a cat 'human' painkillers - their bodies react the drugs differently to humans, and as little as half a paracetamol tablet can kill a cat.

Vets sometimes prescribe aspirin for cats, but the dosage is extremely small, and must be given with very close veterinary supervision to prevent a fatal overdose.

Overdoses of feline treatments

Just because a pet treatment (for example a flea treatment or a wormer) is 'safe for cats' it doesn't mean that it is impossible to overdose. Always follow the instructions to the letter, and don't be tempted to guess your cat's weight if you need this to calculate the dosage.

Different feline medicines with the same or similar ingredients can also combine to produce an overdose, so never use (for example) a flea collar as well as a spot-on flea treatment or spray.

Also, never use dog treatments on a cat, as some chemicals which are harmless to dogs are toxic to cats.

Spotting the signs

If your cat begins to stagger, appears agitated, vomits, has a sore mouth, suffers a fit or has diarrhoea, suspect poisoning and take him straight to the vet.

What to do

  • Even if you have no idea what your cat might have eaten or picked up on its feet and fur, it is a good idea to ring your vet's surgery before you set out. If you can, give them as much information as you can about the product or chemical - this will give the surgery time to get advice from a poison helpline if necessary, and to prepare any antidote that is available.
  • Always take the chemical and/or packaging with you to the vet if you have it. If the cat has vomited, take a sample of the vomit to the surgery as well, as this may provide clues as to what the cat has swallowed.
  • If you suspect that the cat may have eaten the leaves of a houseplant, take a couple of leaves with you. It is also a good idea to keep a note of the Latin names of all plants you have in your home.
  • If your cat has chemicals on his fur, wrap him in a towel to prevent further grooming, and to help keep him calm.

Do not try to make your cat vomit. This can make matters worse, depending on the chemical involved.

Dealing with minor contamination (poison on paws or fur):

If you see your cat contaminate itself with a small amount of oil you can deal with this at home, but for anything more serious, or if you do not know which chemical is involved, seek veterinary assistance immediately.

If there is only a small amount of oil:

  • Wrap the cat in a towel to restrain it.
  • Cut out any marked fur and then pour some cooking oil on a soft cloth and gently clean the area. Repeat the process until all traces of the contamination are removed.
  • Wash the area with a special cat shampoo.
  • Dry the cat and keep him inside for 24 hours so that you can keep a close eye on him. If the cat shows any unusual symptoms, it may have swallowed some of the oil - contact the vet immediately.
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