Poisons, or toxins, are often thought of as something that, if swallowed, will kill you in a matter of minutes -- that is, unless you take an antidote. This is only sometimes true. Almost any substance that has an adverse affect on the body, even if minor, can be considered a toxin. Cats can be exposed to poisons not just by eating them; toxic substances can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin also. Not all poisonings are fatal. Most poisons do not have antidotes; rather, the usual procedure is to give the cat supportive care until the toxins are metabolized out of his system.
Because so many things can be poisonous, and they work in many different ways, it is best to consult your veterinarian or an animal poison control center. Many human poison control centers have information for animals as well, but it may not be as extensive as the ones for animals.
The ASPCA lists the following categories as the top 10 pet poisons of 2009:
Insecticides - this includes flea and tick products
Household Cleaners, like bleach and detergents
Heavy Metals, like zinc, lead and mercury
Garden Products, like fertilizer
Chemical Hazards, like antifreeze or paint thinner
What to Watch For
There is no specific set of symptoms that covers all causes of poisoning. Any change in your cat’s health could potentially be the result of poisoning, but in most cases it is due to another cause.
Some indications that your cat may have been exposed to a toxic substance, other than changes in his health status, include:
- Observation of the cat eating a poisonous substance.
- Foreign material on his hair or feet.
- Foreign material in his vomitus.
- An unusual odor, especially a chemical smell, to his hair, breath, vomitus, or feces.
- Containers of poisonous material that appear to have been spilled or chewed on.
- Plants that appear to have been chewed on.
Because so many toxins start harming your cat shortly after exposure, it is best to take your cat to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Here are some things you can do before you go to the vet:
- If at all possible, identify what you think might have poisoned your cat. The name of the plant, the container label, or any other information you can find or bring in will be helpful.
- If the poisoning is primarily from noxious fumes or a gas, get your cat to fresh air, but don’t put yourself at risk for poisoning.
- If the poisoning is by contact with the skin, wear protective gloves and remove the substance manually from the skin. Use paper towels or clean rags to remove liquids. Do not use water, solvents or anything else to remove the poison unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian.
- If the poison was in the mouth or swallowed, contact your veterinarian. DO NOT induce vomiting unless specifically directed to do so, as some poisons can cause more damage if vomiting occurs than if left in the stomach.
- Call the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-213-6680
Diagnosis is usually made by observing your cat’s exposure to a toxin. For some toxins, there are specific tests. It is impossible to test for all toxins, so if any tests are done, it will be for any toxins of which the veterinarian is highly suspicious. Other tests may be done to assess the function of an organ and other health parameters.
If the poison can be positively identified, a specific antidote can be used -- that is, if one exists. If the type of poison is uncertain, or there is no antidote, treatment has to be supportive in nature (i.e., the symptoms are treated). Every effort will be made to maintain normal function of the organs until the poison has been processed out of the body. Unfortunately, for some poisons, this will not help, and the cat will not survive.
The best way to prevent poisoning is to be aware of what in your house, yard, garage, etc. is poisonous and to do your best to keep your cat away from these areas.