Keeping cats safe – lilies

Lilies – pretty but dangerous to cats! 

Figure 1. LiliumFigure 2. Hemerocallis (Day lily)

The lily is an attractive and fragrant flower, and features in many a bouquet and flower arrangement. However, many people are unaware of the danger they pose to cats. Lilies cause severe kidney damage in cats, but not other species such as dogs. The mechanism whereby this pretty flower is potentially fatal to cats is not fully understood. 

Which type of lily causes a problem?

Lilies, specifically all species of Lilium (true lily) and Hemerocallis (day lily) are poisonous to cats. It is important to be aware that many plants have lily in their name such as lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), peace lily (Spathiphyllum species) and calla or arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica). These plants may have different toxic effects but it is specifically Lilium (figure 1) and Hemerocallis (figure 2) that are discussed here (Table 1).

Table 1: Lilies that are toxic to cats
Scientific nameCommon names
Hemerocallis species Day lily
Lilium x asiatica Asiatic lily
Lilium x asiatica americana 
Lilium candidum Madonna lily
Lilium hydridumJapanese showy lily
Lilium lancifolium (Lilium tigrinum)Tiger lily
Lilium longiforumEaster lily
Lilium orientalisStargazer lily; oriental lily
Lilium regaleRoyal lily
Lilium speciosum 
Lilium rubrum Rubrum lily
Lilium umbellatumWestern or wood lily


How are cats poisoned by lilies?

The vast majority of cases of lily poisoning occur in the home, usually from flowers in a bouquet or a pot plant. Cats may also be exposed to lilies in the garden but this is less common. All parts of the plant; the pollen, stem, flowers and leaves are toxic with ingestion of less than one leaf or part of a flower potentially fatal. It is also possible that the water the flowers are kept in could be poisonous. Just your cat brushing past a flower and licking the pollen off their coat could cause grave illness.

Once ingested the toxin causes severe damage to the kidneys, preventing them doing their job of removing waste and fluid from the body via the urine. In severe cases the kidneys fail completely and the cat makes no urine at all. The build up of fluid and toxins causes acute kidney injury and death if the cat is not treated promptly. Signs of poisoning include drooling, vomiting, refusing food, lethargy and depression and a vet may find enlarged and painful kidneys on examination.

Can cats survive if they eat part of a lily plant?

The answer is yes IF they are treated promptly by the attending vet. This means the cat must be taken to the vet immediately if exposure to lilies is suspected. So for example finding pollen on their coat or seeing them casually chewing a leaf or drinking from the vase. This is not a time to wait and see; you MUST contact your vet immediately, wash off any pollen on the coat to prevent the cat eating anymore and take them straight to the clinic. The vet may make the cat sick and give medication to prevent the cat absorbing the poison. Then they will give the cat fluids directly into the veins to support the kidneys whilst the toxin is flushed out of the cat’s system. If treated before acute kidney damage has occurred then the cat’s prognosis is good, but if kidney injury is present then the outcome for the cat will be worse, hence the need to see the vet as soon as exposure to lilies has occurred or even is suspected.

How can lily poisoning be prevented?

Simply if you own a cat you should never have lilies in the house. If you are lucky enough to be sent some flowers in a bouquet then the lilies should go straight in the bin or be given to a friend with no cats. It is simply not worth the risk of putting them out of reach – as we all know cats are curious and great climbers! There are many other attractive, fragrant flowers that do not cause such devastating illness. See http://icatcare.org/advice/poisonous-plants to check the plants you have in your home and garden are not toxic.

If you see your cat in contact with a lily plant please contact your vet immediately and encourage them to discuss the case with the Veterinary Poisons Information Service.

Case study:


Figure 3.
 Haggis with discoloured fur from contact with lily pollen

This case illustrates perfectly how taking any exposure to lilies seriously is important and thankfully resulted in a good outcome for Haggis the Maine Coon.

‘Our neighbours gave us some lilies as a gift. The next morning I noticed that our white Maine Coon had a lot of yellow spots on his hair. Apparently he had walked over the lilies on the windowsill and the yellow pollen got caught in his hairs. At first just laughed about him being yellow (figure 3), but later it crossed my mind that lilies might be poisonous to cats and so I searched the internet. Soon I read that even a tiny amount of pollen ingested by a cat can cause death by kidney failure. So we immediately washed him in the shower to get all the pollen out his fur and then called the vet. The vet told us to come directly and so we did. The vet put the cat on someintravenous fluids and explained that there was nothing more he could do except hope that the cat hadn't ingested any pollen considering how yellow his coat was we feared the worst. The cat stayed for 2 days on fluids and developed no symptoms over the course of days. It's been a few years since and the cat is still healthy. It was a terrible feeling to know that because of your own stupidity your cat could have died. Since that day no flower or plant is allowed in our home! By sharing this story we hope to warn people about the danger of lilies.’

 

Download our lily poster

International Cat Care has produced a lily poster that can be used in veterinary practices, catteries, flower shops, pet shops etc, to help make cat owners aware of 'lethal lilies'. Click here to download the poster.

Advice section: