Did your cat eat something toxic, like a houseplant, antifreeze, or other common household product? Here's how to help.

By Katie Boyce
August 24, 2020
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Is your cat feeling lazy, sick, or did she ingest something she shouldn’t have? A veterinarian weighs in on cat poisoning symptoms to look out for, plus how to keep your home safe for your feline friend. From toxic houseplants to essential oils that can make your pet sick, here’s everything you need to know about cat poisoning symptoms, treatment, and prevention. 

What Causes Poisoning in Cats? 

Cats are beloved for their curiosity. But as the saying goes, this curiosity can end badly if they ingest or come into contact with any number of toxic substances in and around the home. Interaction with some toxins may cause only mild irritation and discomfort. However, others can attack and shut down major organs quickly, so it’s important to keep your home safe for your pets.

While cats tend to be more discerning than dogs when it comes to eating unknown substances, they can still get into things they shouldn’t. Even if your cat doesn't eat a toxin intentionally, contact can still be dangerous. For instance, if your cat walks through antifreeze on the garage floor and gets it on her paws, she could accidentally ingest it later as she grooms and cleans herself. But it’s not just obvious poisons like antifreeze that pose a threat. Several common household products, over the counter medications, and even fruits and vegetables can make your cat sick.

Clif Paulsen, DVM of Cedar Valley Veterinary Center, breaks down some risk factors in cats. “Breed and size really don’t make cats more susceptible to any of the common toxins,” he says. But, Paulsen points out, age can be a risk factor for cat poisoning, because many poisons attack the kidneys or the liver—things he says may not be functioning to the optimal ability in older cats. “So while age doesn’t predispose [cats to poisoning], age may affect the outcome.” No matter your cat’s age, it’s important to keep dangerous substances out of sight to prevent temptation and accidental ingestion.

How to Know if Your Cat’s Been Poisoned

If you suspect your cat has eaten something toxic, signs of poisoning can range from mild to severe. If your cat has ingested a toxin, you may see:

  • GI issues like vomiting and diarrhea
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy or weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive thirst
  • Drooling
  • Pale gums
  • Blood in stool, vomit, or saliva
  • Seizures

Many of these symptoms can also stem from a mild illness or other serious conditions, so it’s important to monitor your pet and contact your vet if symptoms persist, worsen, or you have reason to believe your cat was poisoned.

Items that are Dangerous to Cats

There are many substances that can make your cat sick, including common products in your cleaning cabinet, and even some food and houseplants. 

  • Household cleaning agents: Bleach, laundry detergents, and dryer sheets can cause mouth and stomach ulcers, vomiting, and other GI issues if your cat ingests them.
  • Human medications: Even seemingly benign pain killers can cause serious consequences if your cat ingests them. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen damage red blood cells and kidneys and cause ulcers in the GI tract.
  • Plants: Cat owners should steer clear of lilies, azaleas, and rhododendrons altogether since even small amounts can cause severe kidney failure, coma, and even death in cats.
  • Some human foods: You might love it, but that doesn’t mean you should share your snack with your pet. Many common foods are actually toxic to cats’ bodies, much like if we were to eat unknown berries from the wrong kind of plant.
    • Onions and garlic can damage red blood cells and cause anemia in cats. Even in their spice and powdered form, it’s best to keep out of reach.
    • Grapes and raisins can cause vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and even kidney failure for both cats and dogs.
    • Cats can suffer from muscle tremors, rapid heart rate, and seizures after ingesting chocolate.
    • Alcohol can cause serious issues for your cat, including vomiting, tremors, coma, and even death. Take your cat to the vet immediately if you think she’s ingested even trace amounts of alcohol.
    • Raw meat—while not actually toxic—can actually give cats food poisoning much like humans, from both e.coli and salmonella. 
    • Raw eggs can also harbor dangerous bacteria, so while cooked eggs can be okay in small portions, uncooked eggs can give cats salmonella similar to humans. 
    • Milk is a surprising food to avoid for many cat owners, but it’s not because of the toxins. In fact, Paulsen points out, some cats are lactose intolerant. “We all think of the little picture of the farm wife putting the little bowl of milk out on the farm step...but it’s something [cats] don’t necessarily tolerate as well as we think they do.”
  • Essential oils: Oils come in different strengths and potencies, so this can be harder to nail down. But Paulsen says he and his team have seen cat poisoning from essential oils firsthand. “With the increase in the use of essential oils, we’re seeing a lot of the oils causing some toxicity in our cats...mostly from a respiratory component because of the diffusers people are using.” He says the list of essential oils that are toxic to cats is longer than most people would imagine—and with many cats susceptible to respiratory illness, and diffusers being placed at the cat’s level—they’re best avoided.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Cat has been Poisoned

If you suspect your cat’s been poisoned, Paulsen says to get him to the vet right away. If you know exactly what he ingested and it’s not life-threatening, it’s possible your vet might be able to walk you through a cat poisoning treatment at home, such as how to induce vomiting.

You can also call the ASPCA poison control hotline at 888/426-4435, Paulsen advises. And while there is a nominal fee for advice, the experts on the line will be able to give helpful instructions on what to do for your cat. The 24/7 hotline is used by pet owners and veterinarians alike, because their experts can explain the toxicity levels of various substances and help devise the best course of action.

Tips to Keep Your Cat Safe 

When it comes to preventing cat poisoning death, Paulsen says the biggest thing is the avoidance of toxic substances, which can be easier to limit if cats are kept indoors and not allowed outside to roam.

“Don’t have [toxic items] in your house,” Paulsen stresses. “If you’re a cat owner, don’t go get a bunch of lilies.” He also says that if you enjoy essential oils, it’s fine to keep them in your home—just to not diffuse them. Remember to keep everyday medications up high and inside cabinets. Prevention is always easier and more effective than any cat poisoning treatment, so it’s important to do everything you can to ensure your home is safe and secure for your cat.