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Potpourri, Glow Sticks, and Slug Bait, Oh My!

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by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

            They’re lurking. 

            In your garden.  On your night stand.  In your kitchen.  In your closet.  In your medicine cabinet.

            Substances potentially toxic to your cat are everywhere.

            Cats may be sensitive to some toxic agents simply because of their unique metabolism. Cats can also jump to high places and encounter materials that are assumed to be out of reach.  Cats are more discreet about what they put in their mouths, and are less likely than dogs to ingest a toxin simply out of curiosity. Even the most discreet cat, however, can be poisoned unintentionally by well-meaning owners who are unaware of the dangers of over-the-counter medications and insecticides. In addition, because of their grooming behavior, cats that experience dermal exposure to toxins are likely to receive an oral dose as well.

            In this article, you’ll be presented with a potpourri of tabby toxins, some fairly common, some a bit surprising.  Speaking of potpourri…

            Liquid potpourris are popular household items, especially during the holidays. They’re found in most common retail stores.  Potpourri solutions are simmered in pots that are heated, usually by a candle, or electric heat. As the water containing the liquid potpourri heats up, fragrance is released. The fragrance is pretty harmless to cats, but the water containing the potpourri is not.  Liquid potpourris may contain cationic detergents and essential oils, both of which are toxic to cats.  Cats may be exposed to these toxins by ingesting the liquid potpourri right from the simmer pot, or lap it up from a spill. They may also be exposed if a container with the liquid potpourri is spilled on the cat’s fur and is then ingested when they groom.

            Essential oils are extracted from plants.  They are volatile, and are used in many products, from perfumes to herbal headache remedies.  They are easily absorbed through mucous membranes, and usually through skin as well.  They can cause irritation of the mucous membranes and gastrointestinal system. Of more concern is the cationic detergent component of the potpourri. Cationic detergents are often used as fabric softeners, germicides, and sanitizers. Skin, when exposed to cationic detergents, may become red, swollen, ulcerated and painful. Ocular exposure can lead to severe corneal injury.  Oral ingestion can cause terrible inflammation of the mouth, tongue and esophagus. The degree of injury depends on how concentrated the cationic detergent is, and how much contact the body has had with it. The concentration of the detergent in liquid potpourri varies with the brand. Treatment of liquid potpourri exposure differs depending on whether the exposure was dermal, ocular, or oral, and may involve several days of hospitalization and considerable expense.

            Glow sticks and glow jewelry (bracelets, necklaces) are plastic items that contain a liquid that glows in the dark.  They are frequently purchased at fairs, festivals, and summertime events. Cats frequently bite into the jewelry when playing with it. The main ingredient in these items is dibutyl phthalate.  Although the chemical may have the potential to cause death via respiratory paralysis, the jewelry usually has only a small amount of the chemical, and ingesting the contents of a piece of glow jewelry should not cause any serious effects.  The chemical has an extremely unpleasant taste, and most cats barely ingest any more than a tiny amount. Immediately after biting into a piece of glow jewelry, cats will show a strong reaction such as profuse drooling and agitation. Some may vomit. The signs of exposure are often very alarming to pet owners, however, the response usually lasts only a few minutes, and occurs only as a response to the repulsive taste of the liquid. The only treatment necessary is diluting the taste of the chemical with milk, tuna juice or canned cat food. To avoid further ingestion from any of the product that may have gotten on the hair coat, a mild soap and water can be used to wash it off.  Unsure if any spilled on the hair coat? Take the cat into a darkened room!

            Molluscicides are products used to kill snails and slugs.  The active ingredient is metaldehyde, and it is toxic to cats.  Slug and snail baits are usually formulated as blue or green colored pellets, powder, granules or liquid. They generally contain 3% metaldehyde.

            Metaldehyde toxicity causes neurological symptoms fairly rapidly – usually within 1 to 4 hours of exposure. Cats may show panting, excitement, anxiety, disorientation, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, extreme sensitivity to touch and sound, incoordination, and muscle tremors that can progress to outright seizures.  Repeated seizures due to metaldehyde poisoning can cause dangerously high body temperatures. If untreated, the neurological symptoms of metaldehyde toxicity can be fatal.  Cat owners who suspect that their cat might have ingested slug or snail bait should alert their veterinarian to this possibility immediately, as the signs of metaldehyde poisoning mimics symptoms of other poisonings and/or neurological disorders.  Bringing remnants of packages or containers for identification of the ingredients in the poison is very helpful. Knowing that the cat might have been exposed to metaldehyde reduces the need for extensive diagnostic tests and allows more rapid, specific treatment.  Treatment is symptomatic and supportive, and may include intravenous fluid therapy, induction of vomiting, pumping the stomach, cool water baths to lower the body temperature if hyperthermia secondary to muscle tremors or seizures has occurred, and anti-anxiety and/or anticonvulsant drugs.

            Toxic substances are found everywhere in our environment, and cats may fall victim to them via intentional administration by a well-meaning owner, or by stumbling upon them as a result of their inquisitive nature. Prevention is key when it comes to safeguarding your cat. Keep all potential poisons safely locked away, and keep cats indoors if possible.

Sidebar:  The ten most common toxins in cats

In the past four years, these are the top ten most frequent feline exposures reported to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center

1. Canine permethrin insecticides – accidentally applying (or deliberately ignoring the warnings on the label) of insecticides containing permethrin can be dangerous, or even deadly. In some instances, cats can be poisoned simply by sleeping near or grooming a dog recently treated with a topical permethrin product.

2. Other topical insecticides – in general, topical application of flea control products, if done according to label directions, will not cause systemic effects in cats. Dermal irritation or a dermal hypersensitivity reaction, however, is a common complaint received by poison control centers. Cats that lick a topical applied product may experience a taste reaction (drooling, vomiting, agitation) that can be quite dramatic in some cases. Fortunately, the ingredients in most of these products have low oral and dermal toxic potential.

3. Venlafaxine – this is an antidepressant known by the brand name Effexor or Effexor XR (Wyeth). It comes in tablets and capsules of varying strength. Cats seem to like the taste of the capsules.  Signs of toxicosis may include dilated pupils, rapid breathing and heart rate, agitation and incoordination, beginning one to eight hours after ingestion. Hospitalization and symptomatic therapy is required for most cats. Generally, the prognosis is good.

4. Glow jewelry and sticks – see article

5. Lilies – ingestion of lilies can cause acute renal failure in cats.  Many plants are called “lilies”, however renal failure has been seen only with Easter lilies, Stargazer lilies, tiger lilies, Asiatic lilies, Oriental lilies, and day lilies.  All parts of the plant are toxic. Prompt, aggressive treatment is necessary for a successful outcome.  Once renal failure develops, however, the prognosis rapidly declines; some recovery may be possible, but this may take weeks, and peritoneal dialysis or hemodialysis at specialized referral centers may be the cat’s only hope.

6. Liquid potpourri – see article

7. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – Cats, with their unique metabolic pathways, have a low tolerance to NSAIDs. Although deliberate ingestion of NSAIDs is possible (especially with chewable formulations), most cases of NSAID toxicity is due to the deliberate administration of these drugs by well-meaning cat owners. Commonly administered NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. These drugs can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and gastric ulcers.  At higher doses, acute renal failure can occur.  Treatment may include minimizing further absorption by inducing vomiting and administering activated charcoal. Acid reducers and gastrointestinal protectants are given to prevent gastrointestinal ulcers. Aggressive fluid therapy is necessary to prevent renal damage. Prognosis depends on the specific drug, the amount ingested, and how quickly treatment was begun.

8. Acetaminophen – the main ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen is frequently combined with several other drugs in common over-the-counter cold and flu preparations, such as Nyquil. Cats rarely ingest this drug on their own; instead, it is often administered to cats by well-intentioned owners. Acetaminophen is a very dangerous drug in cats. One regular (325 mg) or extra-strength (500 mg) tablet can be lethal. Signs of poisoning may include vomiting, labored breathing, swelling of the face and paws, and brown discoloration of the mucous membranes. Treatment requires hospitalization and administration of fluids and several drugs.  The prognosis for acetaminophen toxicity is guarded and is dependent on the amount ingested and how quickly treatment was administered.

9. Anticoagulant rodenticides – these rat and mouse poisons work by inhibiting the activity of Vitamin K. This blocks the synthesis of important clotting factors, causing rodents to bleed to death internally. Ingestion of these poisons by a cat can result in a bleeding disorder.  Clinical signs can vary, depending on where bleeding occurs.The lungs are a common place for bleeding to occur, so coughing or labored breathing may be seen.   Lameness may develop if bleeding occurs in a joint, and neurologic signs may develop if hemorrhage occurs in the spinal cord or brain. Treatment with vitamin K can reverse the effects of the anticoagulant. Most animals do well, especially if treatment is begun before significant hemorrhage occurs. If the patient is already bleeding, the prognosis becomes guarded, although many cats recover with aggressive supportive care.

10. Amphetamines –  Amphetamines are prescribed for people for many purposes, such as appetite suppression and attention deficit disorder. Amphetamines are also found in illegal drugs such as methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) and MDMA (“Ecstasy”). Amphetamines stimulate the central nervous system, and cats that are exposed to amphetamines often show clinical signs such as tremors, agitation, high blood pressure, fast heart rate, heart rhythm disturbances, high body temperature, and possibly coma. Treatment is supportive, and may include sedatives for agitation, anticonvulsants for seizures, and beta blockers or other heart medications for cardiac arrhythmias.  In most cases, the prognosis is good with aggressive support. 

 

Adapted from Veterinary Medicine magazine, June 2006.

Updated 7/8/10