This month, iCatCare’s Keeping Cats Safe campaign is highlighting the potential risk that weedkillers may pose to cats.
Many different weedkiller products are available
Weedkillers or herbicides are used for the control of weeds. A large number of products for use in the garden are available but these domestic products (as opposed to professional agricultural products) only contain a few different herbicidal compounds. Also products for use in the garden are generally less concentrated and less hazardous than professional products.
Cats are generally exposed to weedkillers during, or soon after, their use by walking on treated grass or brushing against wet plants and then grooming. They may also walk in or lick up spills or drips from sprayed weeds or, may occasionally chew treated plants, or rarely, be exposed to ‘spray drift’.
It is important to find out which particular product a cat may have been exposed to, noting the name or ingredients is important, so that if the cat requires treatment, the vet can decide which is the best approach. Information can also be found on a pesticides database which is freely available on the internet (see the bottom of this page).
Glyphosate is a widely used and readily available herbicide. It is present in many products as it is a broad spectrum post-emergence herbicide (that is, it is effective against different types of weeds and applied after the weed has started to grow), is of relative low toxicity, lacks residual soil activity, does not bioaccumulate and is biodegradable.
Glyphosate is primarily available in liquid formulations but these may vary in strength. Many products contain a surfactant, polyoxyethylene amine (POEA), which improves the ‘wettability’ of plants for maximum coverage and aids the glyphosate in penetrating through the plant surface. Glyphosate is considered of low toxicity and it is this surfactant present in many liquid preparations that is believed to be responsible for some of the effects.
Signs of glyphosate poisoning
Vomiting, anorexia and lethargy are common signs in cats after glyphosate exposure. There may also be diarrhoea, tremors, drowsiness and dilated pupils. Severe respiratory signs are a feature of glyphosate exposure in cats and can be fatal. Eye and skin irritation are also possible after exposure to glyphosate-containing products.
If the cat gets a product containing glyphosate on its fur or feet, it should be thoroughly washed. If a cat has ingested a small quantity, particularly of a dilute solution from grooming or licking a spill or from a wet plant, the vet may wash out the cat’s mouth and give oral fluids. If there is definite ingestion, the vet will give more serious treatment.
The chlorophenoxy derivative weedkillers include 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorphenoxyacetic acid), MCPA, mecoprop and dichlorprop. They are frequently found in combinations in products and are also used in lawn feed and weed products. They are available in granular form or as liquid; these chemicals are not very soluble in water and solvents may be present in liquid formulations.
The mode of action of poisoning of chlorophenoxy herbicides is not understood. Few cases in cats have been reported to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service.
Signs of poisoning with chlorophenoxy derivatives
These compounds are irritant and can cause salivation, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and lethargy. In severe cases there may be blood in the faeces, lack of eating and progressive weakness and there may be ulcers in the mouth.
Treatment of poisoning from chlorophenoxy derivatives is supportive. There is no specific antidote. In many cases exposure is minimal and decontamination of the paws and fur (using a detergent) and washing the mouth out with water, with rehydration and treatment to prevent vomiting is all that is required.
Ferrous sulphate is used as a moss killer. It may be available as the chemical itself, but is more commonly found in lawn feed, weed and moss killer products which contain a fertiliser (the feed), an herbicide (the weed killer, often a chlorophenoxy derivative) as well as ferrous sulphate (the moss killer). These products are generally used to revive the lawn during the growing period and are available as granular products for sprinkling on the lawn or products to be dilated in water and poured over the lawn. Granular products are generally used before rain is expected or are watered in after use.
Signs of ferrous sulphate poisoning
An overdose of iron can cause toxicity because the body has no system of eliminating excess iron, and signs include gastrointestinal irritation and more severe problems if a lot is ingested. However, this is unlikely to occur unless the cat has eaten a large quantity of a moss killer. Walking on a treated lawn may cause irritation on the paws, and grooming the product off or licking treated grass may cause vomiting, salivation, diarrhoea and increased frequency of drinking.
If a cat has walked on a treated lawn its feet should be washed with a detergent and rinsed. If veterinary treatment is required it may be something to prevent the cat being sick or to rehydrate it if necessary. In the unlikely case of a cat ingesting a large quantity of a ferrous sulphate-containing moss killer, more serious treatment is required.
Octanoic acid (caprylic acid),decanoic acid (capric acid) and nonanoic acid (pelargonic acid) are examples of naturally occurring fatty acids found in some weed killers, particularly those labelled organic. Nonanoic acid is found in the oil of pelargonium (a common bedding or house plant) and has also been used as a cat repellent. The other two fatty acids have names referring to goats (capr-) because they have a goaty odour.
Signs of fatty acid poisoning
Few cases of exposure have been reported in cats probably because they do not like the smell. In the small number of cases reported to the Veterinary Poisons Information Service, cats have developed irritation or ulceration in the mouth, lack of appetite, salivation, and a high temperature. There is also the risk of severe skin irritation from prolonged contact.
A cat exposed to a herbicide containing fatty acids should have its paws or fur cleaned with a detergent and rinsed off. If the cat has licked the product or groomed it off its coat, he vet may wash out the cat’s mouth and offer supportive pain relief, feeding and treatment if necessary.
Many different products are available for the control of weeds, but they generally contain only a few different herbicidal compounds; this is particularly true for those products for use in the garden (rather than agricultural products). Always read the packaging on herbiside products and use them according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It may be difficult to prevent access to these products in free roaming cats and if you are concerned that the cat may lick treated plants or spills of herbicide, it may be best to avoid their use and control weeds by manual removal.
Finding product information on pesticides
You can find the ingredients of UK pesticide products by searching the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Pesticides Register.
(You can search by product name, active ingredient, product registration number, use, amateur or professional products and more.)
Other European countries can find the relevant database here.
In the US information see the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.
In Canada see the Pest Management Regulatory Agency website.
In Australia see the Australia Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) website.
In New Zealand see the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines (ACVM) website.