Summer is a wonderful time of year and many of us celebrate the good weather by growing beautiful flowers in our gardens, bringing home floral bouquets or receiving them as gifts. However, not everyone is aware of the hazard this may pose to cats as many bouquets of flowers contain various species of lily, which are highly toxic to cats and often proved fatal if any part of the plant is ingested, even in small quantities.
There are many websites that contain long lists of substances that are potentially dangerous to cats and, as responsible cat owners, we may have already reviewed such sites ourselves. However, what these websites often don’t do is indicate which of these substances are the most dangerous to cats and what action to take should our cat come into contact with or ingest these substances. For example, many species of lily are extremely toxic to cats (on the same level of hazard as antifreeze) and can cause fatal kidney failure if ingested even in small quantity. Indeed, popular plants such as Easter lilies, Day lilies, Tiger lilies, Calla lilies and Stargazer lilies are all highly toxic to cats and ALL parts of the plant, including leaves, stem, pollen, stamen and petals are toxic. Even small ingestions, e.g. a small part of a petal, can be fatal to cats and even if cats just brush past a lily the plant and get pollen on their coats, they will inevitably ingest the pollen as they subsequently groom themselves and this is just as serious as ingesting the leaves or flowers.
How common is lily poisoning?
In the UK, lily poisoning has been identified as amongst the top five serious toxicities of cats and currently generates the greatest number of feline toxicological enquiries. Symptoms and signs of lily poisoning:
The toxic element in lilies is currently unknown, although it seems to be rapidly absorbed after ingestion. The first signs usually develop a few hours after ingestion and may mimic the signs seen with grape/raisin toxicity and antifreeze poisoning. The first signs seen are:
- loss of appetite
Renal (kidney) failure usually follows, typically 36 – 72 hours after ingestion. The signs include:
- increased thirst
- increased urination initially, followed by low urine output and finally no urine output
How will I know if my cat has lily poisoning?
As vomiting is an early symptom, the usual way that an owner knows or suspects their cat has eaten a lily is the sight of chewed leaves or flowers contained in the vomit (although after chewing it may not always be easy to identify what plant material has been swallowed). Also the tell-tale yellow/orange pollen stain on the cat’s coat may indicate that the cat has come into contact with a lily and has subsequently ingested the pollen as part of normal self-grooming. Occasionally, owners (especially those unaware of exactly how dangerous these plants can be to cats) may witness the contact either with cut flowers in the house or lilies grown in the garden. This is probably the best case scenario as immediate action can be taken to counteract the effects.
If none of these events are witnessed, then any of the above symptoms occurring in a cat that has access to lilies should be considered as possible lily poisoning.
If you suspect that your cat may have ingested any amount of any part of any type of lily plant, you should seek immediate veterinary attention. If you see your cat has pollen on their coat, especially their nose or face, wash this off immediately to reduce the extent of contact with the plant and subsequent ingestion of the pollen. Several washes may be required as lily pollen is extremely tenacious, although the yellow/orange pollen stain may help guide owners of poisoned cats as to the site(s) that require washing and the need for repeat washing to ensure thorough pollen removal. As 50% of cases of lily poisoning are fatal, the best predictor of a favourable outcome is to initiate treatment for lily poisoning as soon as possible after ingestion. A recent study demonstrated that 87% of cats that are treated by a veterinary surgeon before onset of kidney failure survived and did not have any permanent kidney damage. If a cat is not treated until after kidney failure has developed, kidney failure is almost certain to be permanent or fatal despite intensive treatment. LILY POISONING IN CATS IS A VETERINARY EMERGENCY.
In some cases it may be possible to induce vomiting if the plant was recently eaten (one hour or less). However, induction of vomiting in cats is difficult to achieve and the range of treatment options for producing this effect is limited and may have safety concerns of their own. If available, and if the ingested matter is still in the stomach (<4 hours after ingestion) the plant matter may be removed from the stomach via an endoscope. However, this requires general anaesthesia (which may place further stress on the kidneys) and endoscopy equipment and skilled veterinary operators are not always available at all veterinary surgeries.
Activated charcoal can be given orally without the cat requiring anaesthesia (usually via a gastric tube to avoid the risk of inhalation) and is recommended to help reduce the toxic effects. The main treatment, however, involves supporting the kidneys with high dose intravenous fluids, and such support may be required for some time (minimum 48 hours at 2-3 times normal fluid requirements). Regular blood tests to monitor kidney function whilst receiving fluid therapy, and after fluid therapy is complete, will also be required to guide further treatment and indicate prognosis.
Sadly, approximately 50% of cases of lily poisoning in cats are fatal. Young cats, and especially kittens, seem particularly susceptible as they tend to be more curious and playful than older cats thereby chewing the leaves and flowers and ingesting larger amounts. Also, the kidney function of young kittens is relatively immature compared to an adult cat. Indeed, just mouthing the leaves or flowers in a young kitten without even swallowing any of the plant is considered sufficient to cause death at this age.
Assuming the cat responds to the above treatment and survives an episode of lily poisoning, the cat should recover from the episode without permanent damage to their general health or kidney function.
Of course, as with any potentially fatal condition, prevention is usually better than cure especially as not all owners realise just how dangerous lilies are to cats, even in very small doses, and not all cats will survive lily poisoning yet are attracted to the brightly coloured and highly scented flowers. Therefore, it is recommended that cat owners neither have lilies in the house nor grow them in the garden if their cats are also given access to the outdoors.
IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CAT HAS INGESTED ANY PART OF A LILY PLANT
PLEASE SEEK URGENT VETERINARY ATTENTION