Detergents: keep them away from your cat! 

Detergents are found in all our homes, and are present in a wide variety of household products such as fabric cleaning capsules, washing up liquid, shampoo, some toilet cleaners and toilet blocks, bathroom and kitchen cleaners, disinfectant liquid, wipes and sprays and many more.

A variety of detergents can be found in most homes (picture courtesy of Nicola Bates, Veterinary Poisons Information Service)
A variety of detergents can be found in most homes (picture courtesy of Nicola Bates, Veterinary Poisons Information Service)

Why are detergents toxic to cats?

Detergents, depending on the type, can be highly irritant, damaging any body surface they come into contact with.  If swallowed, detergents can damage the mouth, tongue and gastrointestinal tract and, if inhaled, can be very toxic to the respiratory tract. There has been publicity on the danger of some concentrated detergents to children who are especially interested in the capsules (see figure 2) or in tables such as are used in dishwashers.  So keeping them out of the way of children and animals is very important.

Laundry detergent capsules can be dangerous as they will ‘explode’ if bitten into (picture courtesy of Nicola Bates)
Laundry detergent capsules can be dangerous as they will 'explode' if bitten into (photo courtesy of Nicola Bates, Veterinary Poisons Information Service)

How are cats exposed to detergents?

Walking through a detergent spill, or on a treated surface, then licking the product off feet and hair may expose cats to these chemicals. Less commonly a cat may bite into a detergent capsule or ‘pod’. This is especially dangerous as the capsule may ‘explode’ releasing the liquid into the cat’s mouth.  The cat may also inhale the detergent, damaging its lungs.

What are the signs of detergent poisoning?

Affected cats may be sick rapidly after ingesting detergent, or show distress due to irritation in the mouth and throat. Further signs may be reluctance to eat or diarrhoea.  If the liquid is inhaled, the cat may suffer from breathing difficulties.  sometimes these signs may not be seen for several hours or several days. Contact with the skin may cause irritation.  If the detergent comes into contact with the cat’s eyes they may be red and painful  and severe eye damage has been reported.

How are affected cats treated?

Any area which has been exposed to detergents should be well rinsed. The cat should not be induced to be sick even if you think detergent has been swallowed.  Contact your vet if you think this is the case of if the skin or mouth have been damaged.  Your vet may give drugs prevent sickness as well as other treatments including anti-foaming agents and supportive care including pain relief and fluid therapy. If the cat is  unable to eat because of injuries to the mouth and throat, the vet may give food via a tube.  Cats which have inhaled detergents into the lungs may need to be hospitalised at the veterinary clinic for more intensive treatment.

Preventing detergent poisoning in cats

Detergents should be kept out of reach of cats (and remember they are also dangerous to children and other pets), spills rapidly mopped up, and treated surfaces rinsed and allowed to dry before allowing cats to walk on them. Laundry capsules can be particularly dangerous and should be kept in their own sealed container. If a cat is exposed to a detergent, veterinary advice should be sought.

Thanks to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service for providing information for this article. 

Case study

Linda Ranson, a breeder of Burmese cats, tells her story – an accident which should make us all ensure our cats can’t knock over bottles or walk through spills of liquid detergent...

I had four cats at the time (and a litter of 9-week-old kittens upstairs) which slept in my kitchen/utility room where, as many of us do, I had a large bottle of liquid detergent. One of the cats must have knocked the bottle off the side during the night and the top broke, spilling the contents all over the floor. Three of the cats walked in the detergent and got it on their paws and fur.  

My beautiful Tilly and her mum Mimi (also the mum of the kittens) were badly affected. We tried washing the detergent off but it was ingrained in their fur and on their skin. We checked the safety certificates on the detergent and it didn’t say anything about being harmful to cats. Gradually during the day they got sadder and then Tilly started foaming at the mouth. My daughter took her to the vet and explained what had happened. The vet prescribed Metacam, a painkiller, and sent her home. Tilly’s condition worsened overnight and we realised that both cats were getting sicker. We took them back to the vet where they were found to be seriously dehydrated. At this point both Tilly and Mimi were seriously ill and were put on drips. Sadly, there was nothing the vet could do for Tilly – she was a fastidious cleaner and licking the detergent off her paws and fur had caused burns to her airways. She wasn’t responding to treatment so we agreed that euthanasia was the kindest option to stop her suffering. She died in my arms. She was just the most beautiful cat and so full of character.  

Mimi sustained painful burns (left, middle) from the detergent and Tilly (right) sadly had to be euthanased
Mimi sustained painful burns (left, middle) from the detergent and Tilly (right) sadly has to be euthanased (photos courtesy of Linda Ranson)

Mimi wasn’t as badly affected as Tilly, but she stayed at the vet clinic for another day and then needed 24 h care for 5 days at home to nurse her back to health. She had horrendous, painful burns on her paws and on her skin and and really did hang between life and death for a few days. Luckily Mimi recovered and there were no lasting signs from the burns.

My other two cats were also treated but they weren’t as badly affected. I was also lucky the kittens were big enough to survive without their mum, Mimi, while she was at the vet clinic and that they weren’t anywhere near the detergent.

I still don’t buy liquid detergent and would urge owners to ensure that such a senseless accident can’t happen in their home.

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