With springtime comes festive events like Easter and Mother’s Day, and with all the blooming flowers, a bouquet is often the gift of choice. Experts place caution on one kind of flower, however, for the beautiful plant has proven to be toxic – and often fatal – to felines.
Ingestion of even minute amounts of a lily flower or its pollen causes severe kidney damage in a cat, and without treatment, mortality rate is extremely high.
“For some reason, cats like to chew on these plants,” said Larry Cowgill, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Center. “The toxicity is so severe that probably half of cats exposed to lilies die. It’s just too risky to keep lily arrangements in the house.“
Experts stressed the speed and severity of the poisoning. Without treatment, the period of time between initial ingestion and death is often less than a week.
“Cats can get acute kidney failure fairly quickly, [within] 48 to 72 hours,” said Robert Poppenga, veterinary toxicologist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “If the kidneys don’t produce any urine, it could be two, three or four days before the animal could actually die.“
The kidneys essentially filter blood and excrete its waste products in the urine. Without these vital organs, toxins and electrolytes build up in the blood, adversely affecting the normal, homeostatic functions of the body.
“[The lily flower] damages the cells in the kidney that are responsible for normal functioning,” said Dana Farbman, spokesperson for the ASPCA animal poison control center. “The animal dies as a result because of the toxin buildup not being let out.“
According to experts, there are a number of signs and symptoms the cat will display if poisoned. They will often have a general reluctance to eat and drink, and will continually vomit. In addition, their behavior will change: The animal will become reclusive, depressed and lethargic.
Even if these signs and symptoms occur, however, lily poisoning is not necessarily the culprit. Although they can be caused by other factors, they are still serious symptoms – whether it is the result of lily poisoning or not. Poppenga stressed that the animal should still be taken to the hospital.
Experts said that treatment should begin before damage to the kidneys proceeds further.
“Once signs of kidney failure start to show themselves the prognosis for a good outcome decreases,” Farbman said. “With lily poisoning overall, prompt and aggressive care needs to be taken in order to avoid a life-threatening situation.“
Initially, treatment involves fluid administration not only to prevent dehydration, but to also test how damaged the kidneys are. If the kidneys are damaged measures are often taken.
“[Treatment] depends on whether the animal is producing any urine at all,” Poppenga said. “The animal is usually given fluid, and if the animal is not producing any urine, hemodialysis can be used. But that usually takes time and can be very expensive.“
Even though these treatments are shown to be mostly effective – given that the animal is hospitalized in a timely manner and the damage to the kidneys is not severe – there exists no antidote for the toxin. Instead, hospitalization merely re-hydrates the cat and hemodialysis takes over the job of the kidneys while these organs are weakened.
“[Treatment] supports the animal for kidney failure for animals that have a mild degree of damage,” Cowgill said. “During this time, it is hoped that the kidneys will heal themselves.“
In order to prevent such events, experts stressed that pet owners should be aware of local plants and household chemicals that can fatally wound a dog or cat if ingested.
“Just like antifreeze used to cause kidney failure in cats and dogs, people just don’t understand that lilies have this kind of serious risk to cats,” Cowgill said.
Likewise, Poppenga emphasized that it is better to err on the side of caution.
“I think it’s always important for pet owners to be aware of potential problems for their pets,” Poppenga said. “There is a lot of information online regarding this. Consult your veterinarian to avoid the products in your house that could be toxic.“
MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at email@example.com.