Susan Shaw, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist
Pet Poison Helpline
Cats. Online, in real life, and on social media, there is certainly no shortage of them. They’re known far and wide for their odd behaviors, fear of cucumbers, adorable toe beans, and insatiable curiosity (and appetite). Sometimes, however, that curiosity can get our feline friends into sticky situations often before we as pet parents even realize it!
Working for Pet Poison Helpline and being known among my circle of friends and fellow Registered Veterinary Technicians and Veterinarians as the resident crazy cat lady, I often am asked by friends and family what kitty toxins I receive calls for the most. This can be a tricky question, of course, as I’ve seen our feline friends get into anything from an owner’s favorite pair of Harry Potter Slytherin socks to tablets of their owner’s medications (remember how hard it was to give your cat those antibiotics?).
Out of all the calls we receive on a daily basis, these are (what I believe to be) the most prominent toxins in the feline household, and ones that I encourage cat owners to be very wary of:
As tasty as onions and garlic are to humans, these foods as well as their relatives (shallots, scallions, chives, and leeks) can actually cause hemolysis, or destruction of the blood cells. Because of their dependence on an antioxidant called glutathione, cats are even more sensitive to these foods than their canine companions. One thing to also note about these products is that these foods also come in incredibly concentrated forms such as garlic and onion powder or salt. Only one teaspoonful of onion powder is equal to about 5 ounces of fresh onion in potency. That’s about the size of one small whole onion!
We have all heard that chocolate is toxic to dogs, but is the same true in our feline friends? The answer is yes! Chocolate contains the Methylxanthine derivatives caffeine and theobromine. These substances act as stimulants on the central nervous and cardiovascular systems. In high enough doses, this can cause concern for elevated heart rate and blood pressure as well as possible tremors and seizures. As a general rule of thumb, the darker the chocolate, the higher the theobromine content!
We do not yet fully understand the toxic principles of grapes and raisins, which makes it difficult to establish an official toxic dose—for both dogs AND cats. To date, dogs are the only species positively identified as being sensitive to these foods, but there are a few anecdotal cases of cats developing renal problems as a result of grape/raisin ingestion. This could also be, in part, to cats merely having no interest in eating these products. To be precautious, depending on the number ingested it is typically recommended to treat feline ingestions in a similar manner to canines.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is used as an artificial sweetener in many sugar free products. It can also now be purchased in powder form for all of your baking needs. The concern with this product, is that in dogs it can cause dose dependent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and even liver damage at high enough doses. With cats, however, it is unlikely to see toxicity. While there have been reports of cases where the cat’s blood glucose has dropped slightly, there is currently no published data to suggest that cats are sensitive to Xylitol.
Acetaminophen is an analgesic that is used to treat minor aches and pains as well as fever in humans. This drug has a narrow margin of safety in dogs, and is even more dangerous for our feline friends. Cats have a decreased ability to metabolize acetaminophen in their liver, making them much more susceptible to poisoning than most other species. Just one dose of this medication when given to your cat could possibly cause concern for toxicity! It is ALWAYS recommended to consult with your veterinarian prior to giving your pet ANY over the counter medications that have not been prescribed to them.
By far, cats are the species most sensitive to the use of essential oils. Similar to Acetaminophen, cats have a decreased ability to metabolize certain essential oils in the liver, making them much more sensitive. Some oils of concern include:
- Oil of Wintergreen, which contain salicylates (Aspirin!). This oil can cause concern for gastrointestinal issues as well as liver issues and respiratory problems.
- Citrus Oils can cause concern for muscle tremors, difficulty standing or walking, coma, and death.
- Pine Oils can initially cause gastrointestinal issues, but may later progress to pulmonary edema, anemia, renal/liver failure, and death.
- Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca oil, is very commonly used as a natural antiseptic. However, use of concentrated oil can cause low body temperature, depression, difficulty walking or standing, tremors, and possible liver damage.
Pyrethrins are derived from chrysanthemum flowers and are often used in low concentrations in some flea and tick shampoos, as well as topical flea and tick products for dogs. As opposed to dogs, who tend to tolerate these products very well, cats are extremely sensitive, yet again, in part because of their inability to metabolize these products properly as well as other unknown reasons. As with many toxins, the concentration of the product itself makes the poison. While flea and tick shampoos that are labeled for cats can contain very low concentrations of Pyrethrins and are not considered a problem, highly concentrated products such as dog topical spot-ons can cause severe neurologic signs such as tremors, seizures, and difficulty walking or standing which can actually become fatal in severe cases. Because of this, it is very important to always read product packaging carefully and use only product specifically made for cats!
Our feline friends are special, to be sure. Luckily, what they lack in ability to metabolize some of these foods and toxins, they make up for with the never-ending supply of love, affection, and pure comedy.
If you find yourself in a medical emergency, call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline at 800-213-6680. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week even on holidays to help with pet poison emergencies.