Introduction to cats and poisons


This month we launch our ‘Keeping Cats Safe’ initiative and start by looking at disinfectants. In this article we look at why cats may become poisoned and what signs to look out for, we also cover the most commonly reported poisons using data collected by the UK’s Veterinary Poisons Information Service (VPIS).


This article introduces a series of articles on toxicity as part of our ‘Keeping Cats Safe’ initiative launched this month. If you have concerns your cat has be affected by a potentially toxic substance then always contact your vet. Please also see our specific advice on poisoning

Why are cats affected more than other species by specific substances?

  • They keep themselves very clean: and may ingest substances from their coat or feet as they groom.
  • They have different ways of detoxifying chemicals than dogs: the differences in ways the cat’s body handle a chemical can be detrimental as cats sometimes lack specific mechanisms to safely eliminate the substance from the body.
  • They may have access outdoors: meaning as owners we don’t always see the suspected incident occur and they may return home many hours later delaying diagnosis and treatment. Equally if poisoning is suspected the toxin may be impossible to identify as we simply do not know where the cat has been or what they have been up to.
  • They are small: meaning only a tiny dose of some toxins can be fatal.

These behavioural and biological differences from other species may mean cats are less likely to recover from a poisoning than a dog.

What are the most common substances involved?

These substances generate the most frequent enquiries made by veterinary surgeons to the VPIS. Enquiries regarding suspected exposures to substances and/or products and are not always confirmed and a substance may rank highly, not because of toxicity but because it is contained in a product containing multiple ingredients which may vary in toxicity. 

  • Lilium species (lilies) (figure 1)
  • Agent unknown (cases where poisons is strongly suspected but the cause is not identified)
  • Permethrin (cats exposed to dog flea products)
  • Ethylene glycol (antifreeze) (figure 2)
  • Benzalkonium chloride (a disinfectant)
  • Imidacloprid (a flea treatment – most cases relate to products containing multiple ingredients)
  • Paracetamol (figure 3)
  • Disinfectant (probably also benzalkonium chloride but unconfirmed)
  • White spirit (turpentine substitute)
  • Moxidectin (another anti-parasite drug)

From this list we can see that ingestion of lilies is the most common cause of poisoning and we will be discussing this in more detail later in the year. Flea and worming products when used inappropriately can cause severe illness and even death in cats and feature several times in this list, reminding us to only use treatments specifically prescribed for cats, preferably from your veterinary surgery, and after reading the instructions fully.

What signs might indicate my cat has been poisoned?

The signs of poisoning will vary according to what the cat has been exposed to. Many toxins produce gastrointestinal signs (vomiting and diarrhoea), others produce neurological signs (tremors, incoordination, seizures, excitability, depression, or coma), respiratory signs (coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing), skin signs (inflammation, swelling), liver failure (jaundice, vomiting) or kidney failure (increased drinking, inappetence and weight loss). Some toxins act on more than one body system, and so can produce any combination of the above signs.  If you have any concerns that your cat has ingested a poison, either through direct contact or from grooming, contact your vet immediately – the quicker a cat is treated the more likely it is to be successful.

What should I do if I think my cat has been poisoned?

Remove your cat from the source of the poison and contact your vet. Do not attempt to make your cat vomit as this can be dangerous to your pet. Some specific information may be useful for your vet so try to tell him/her:

  • What makes you suspect your cat has been poisoned? (eg, did you see him/her ingest something or is it that the cat is showing signs of illness?)
  • If there was a known exposure to a toxin – and try and find the box/bottle to tell the vet the full name of the product or chemical.
  • When the cat was exposed (eg, how long ago?)
  • If you have recently used a chemical/product that may be poisonous to the cat. Common examples are applying a flea product to the dog, recently cleaned the kitchen surfaces or patio.

If you notice contamination on your cat’s coat then contact your vet for advice, they may recommend a visit to the surgery for the coat to be fully cleaned – remember cats with any substance on their coat are likely to wash it off themselves and ingest potential toxins. Remember to wear gloves when handling a cat with chemicals on the coat. Not all substances are removed with water so washing with water alone may not be enough to thoroughly decontaminate the coat.

How can I prevent my cat being poisoned?

In many cases cats are exposed to poisons in and around their own home so there are ways to make home a safer place. Consider the following advice:

  • Keep cleaning products and disinfectants locked away from pets and children. Avoid simply placing on high shelves as cats may jump up and knock them off.
  • Keep medicines locked away from pets and children.
  • Always follow veterinary advice and do not give your cat any medication not prescribed for them (i.e. human or dog medication).
  • When treating any animal in the home for fleas consider if the product contains permethrin which is toxin to cats. Ideally treat a dog with a product safe for cats living in the same house or keep treated dogs away from cats for 24 hours.
  • Keep motoring products such as antifreeze away from any pets or children and mop up any spills immediately, disposing of any excess correctly.
  • Check if any plants in your home or garden are toxic to cats and if so remove them. See for more information.
  • Avoid cut flower arrangements containing lilies.
  • Keep decorating materials such as paint, varnish and wood preservatives away from pets.

If your suspect your cat has been poisoned contact your vet IMMEDIATELY as if left untreated or if treatment is delayed the results can be fatal.


Cats may be vulnerable to certain chemicals and exposure can cause serious illness and even death. By taking sensible precautions and always seeking prompt veterinary advice if poisoning is suspected, or if a cat is unwell, we can minimise the risk to our feline friends. 

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