Cat Toxins Part 2

cat peeking over the table

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We often think of dogs when it comes to pets eating something that can make them ill, but cats are at risk of becoming sick from exposure to toxic substances also. In part 2 of our series on common cat toxins, Dr. Christine Klippen, emergency veterinarian, gives pet owners advice on household dangers for cats to avoid, including essential oils, certain houseplants, over the counter cold medicines and more.

[00:01:05] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. I’m joined again today by Dr. Christine Klippen, emergency room veterinarian in part 2 of our two-part series on household toxins for cats. She joined me last week and went over the 1st set of toxins that you should be aware of, and we’ll be finishing up that episode today. Enjoy! 

Are cold medicines toxic to cats?

blister packs of medication

[00:01:28]Dr. Lancellotti: How about other over the counter medications (for coughs, colds, allergies, etc)? Why do we have to worry about these? 

[00:01:41] Dr. Klippen: This goes back to talking about our non-steroidal anti-inflammatories as well as Tylenol, because a lot of these over-the-counter cough, cold, and allergy medications actually have some sort of pain reliever or fever reliever contained in it as well. That’s where the concern is for cats. 

[00:02:00] Dr. Lancellotti: So, it’s hidden and these other medications. And what would you expect to see in a cat that has taken one of these medications? 

[00:02:09] Dr. Klippen: We may see an increased heart rate, an elevated blood pressure, low red blood cell count, maybe difficulty breathing, the swollen paws, swollen face, and more serious concerns of liver failure. 

[00:02:23] Dr. Lancellotti: Just like a lot of the other medications we’ve talked about before, what would you recommend that pet owners do?  

[00:02:31] Dr. Klippen: I would recommend that we head into the emergency room, so that we can hopefully make them vomit and try to get them out.

What common household plants are toxic to cats?

peace lily plant

From top: peace lily, philodendron and pothos.

Clockwise from top left: peace lily, pothos, and philodendron.

[00:02:37]Dr. Lancellotti: There are some other plants that we have listed here as our toxin number 8. These are plants that contain an insoluble calcium oxalate crystal. Tell us a little bit about that and why we need to be worried about these particular plants. 

[00:02:53] Dr. Klippen: There are a group of plants that create these insoluble calcium oxalate crystals, and what happens when a cat eats them is that it causes tingling and little diamond shards, if you will, at the level of the mucus membranes. What it looks like, to a pet owner, is that it’s an irritant. The animals will drool, they may vomit, and they may go off of their food because of this irritant, which is a natural defense mechanism of these plants. Cats are munching away on them and it can cause some problems. 

[00:03:34] Dr. Lancellotti: What types of plants, typically, will create these calcium oxalate crystals? What do pet owners need to be aware of and keep away from their cats?

[00:03:44]Dr. Klippen: A lot of the ‘easy keeper’ house plants that we see (peace lilies, philodendrons, and Pathos -a lot of people seem to have this because they have wonderful foilage-) can cause this upper GI and oral irritation. 

[00:03:59]Dr. Lancellotti: Great. I’ll make sure we put some pictures of those plants on the website, so people can see exactly which plants can cause this particular type of irritation. Is this something that’s as severe as exposure to the lilies?

[00:04:15] Dr. Klippen: Thankfully, severe symptoms are usually uncommon and it’s more of the simple, straightforward, GI upset in these particular cases. 

[00:04:25]Dr. Lancellotti: So, if the pet owner sees that the cat has started chewing on this plant, and maybe they’ve started drooling a little bit, they’re definitely uncomfortable. Is there anything that they can do at home to help relieve some of that discomfort? 

[00:04:38] Dr. Klippen: Yeah. So if the cat is not actively vomiting, you can try to dilute it by giving a little bit of watered down milk or chicken broth, or even diluted canned cat food. This will help coat those mucous membranes, so that they’re not getting those little prickly sensations and hopefully help with the discomfort associated with them eating it.

[00:05:03] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. It’s kind of a natural pain reliever just by coating that mouth, and definitely much safer than the other pain relievers that we talked about before. What’s another good way for pet owners to prevent the cats from getting into these plants in the first place? 

[00:05:20] Dr. Klippen: I always tell people, “Try to keep houseplants up and away from cats.” I have two naughty cats, myself, who liked to knock things over when I am least suspecting it. Do your very best with trying to keep the houseplants away. Then, as we said in the very beginning with some of the lilies, familiarize yourself with what plants that you have in the home. If you know the names of the plants that you’re bringing in, that might be good information that you are going to pass along to a veterinary professional, so that they know if it is something that they need to be concerned about.

Are onions and garlic toxic to cats?

[00:05:59]Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. I know we talked a lot about different food items when we talked about common household toxins for dogs. Our toxin #9 here is a food item that is particularly toxic to both dogs and cats. Tell us a little bit about onions and garlic, and why we need to be careful with these around our pets. 

[00:06:23] Dr. Klippen: Onions, garlic, chives, and leeks, all part of the allium family, are poisonous to dogs and cats if they’ve had a big dose or even small doses, because it can be potentially cumulative as well. Garlic is considered to be about 5 times as toxic as onions for cats and dogs, and then onion in all forms (powdered, raw, cooked, or dehydrated) can be an issue in cats. 

[00:06:56]Dr. Lancellotti: I’ve heard this old wives’ tale about garlic for preventing fleas. Is that true? And is that something that you would recommend? 

[00:07:04] Dr. Klippen: It is NOT true and it is definitely not recommended. I think that there are far superior products that are out on the market that will help prevent fleas and ticks and be much safer than some of these old wives’ tales that are not proven to be beneficial. 

[00:07:23] Dr. Lancellotti: And in this case can actually be harmful… 

[00:07:26] Dr. Klippen: Correct. 

[00:07:27] Dr. Lancellotti: So what is the harm that’s happening when dogs and cats ingest onions and garlic? 

[00:07:34] Dr. Klippen: Cats have a very fragile red blood cell and these types of ingestions can cause that red blood cell to break down and they can develop a condition called hemolytic anemia where those little red blood cells will pop. When those little red blood cells pop, it can eventually lead to anemia or a low red blood cell count. 

[00:07:56] Dr. Lancellotti: When an animal becomes anemic, and their body’s not able to carry the oxygen that it needs to the tissues, what are you going to see in the animal at that point? 

[00:08:10] Dr. Klippen: Symptoms may include things like vomiting, diarrhea, breathlessness, or they may be lethargic. Also, if you were to look at their gums, they would be really pale or white, or even yellow, in some particular situations. They may have an elevated respiratory rate, as well as at elevated heart rate, which are all signs of low red blood cell count.

[00:08:32] Dr. Lancellotti: How soon after ingesting the onions or the garlic would you start to see these signs? 

[00:08:37] Dr. Klippen: That’s the tricky part with them. It may take several days after your pet eats garlic or onions for symptoms to appear.  

[00:08:47] Dr. Lancellotti: If you know that the animal has gotten into this, what would you recommend as far as treatment?

[00:08:55]Dr. Klippen: Because of the fact that they can develop signs at a very low amount as low as 0.5% of their body weight), I would recommend having them evaluated on an emergency basis. Again, maybe we can prevent these signs from happening to decontaminate them and get it out of their system, so that it’s not something that we need to worry about. 

Are essential oils toxic to cats?

essential oil diffuser

[00:09:17] Dr. Lancellotti: Our last toxin is one that people may not know about, and I think it’s one that’s probably become a lot more of an issue over the past decade or so. Tell me a little bit about essential oils and why we need to be careful when we use them around cats.

[00:09:40]Dr. Klippen: We use essential oils for a number of different things. Some people may want to use them as an insecticide. So, to prevent mosquitoes, a lot of us may have the little diffusers around our homes (either the ones that make the little smoke that comes out, or even the little reeds that are in the vase of the essential oils). A lot more health conscious people are using essential oils in some of their personal care products. We’re seeing it a lot more frequently than we did even 15-20 years ago. 

[00:10:17] Dr. Lancellotti: And so why is this concerning for veterinarians and for people that have pets at home?

[00:10:22]Dr. Klippen: The reason why they pose that toxic risk is that they are absorbed orally, across the skin, as well as being able to be absorbed through respiratory secretions. So again, if you have one of these little diffusers that makes the smoke, your cat may not be actively licking the stuff coming out of it, but they’re breathing it in and they’re absorbing it that way. Because of the way that cats are anatomically, they actually lack specific essential enzymes in their livers to be able to break these down, and they’re unable to eliminate the certain toxins that are the byproducts of these essential oils. 

[00:11:07] Dr. Lancellotti: Even without eating it, there’s still a risk of this animal having a toxic reaction. Which essential oils do pet owners need to be most careful of where you’ve seen a lot of this toxicity occurring?

[00:11:22] Dr. Klippen: Personally, the ones that I have seen over the years are tea tree oil (probably one of the more common ones because people will use it as a more natural product for acne relief), wintergreen, sweet birch, citrus oil, pine oil, peppermint, cinnamon, cloves, and then eucalyptus. All of those oils have been implicated to be much more toxic in cats. 

[00:11:52] Dr. Lancellotti: So, if the animal has been exposed to this, either through their mouth or through their skin or through inhaling it, what types of symptoms might you see?

[00:12:05]Dr. Klippen: Some cats will drool or act nauseated. But I think, more commonly, cats will have difficulty walking. They will actually show signs of central nervous system depression, so they may act like they’re drunk, they may just be a little bit more subdued, and sometimes, they may be breathing hard or have a low heart rate. Those are usually the signs that I see in cats that have been accidentally locked in a room with one of these diffusers or something going. 

[00:12:39]Dr. Lancellotti: Do you have any advice for pet owners as far as protecting their cat from essential oil toxicity?

[00:12:47] Dr. Klippen: Familiarize yourself with the types of products that you’re using in the home. I think that when you start to use the oils that are more of 100% (pure), you’re going to be at a greater risk for developing signs. I would definitely try to stay away from some of the ones that we previously mentioned. Then again, if you do decide that you need to use a diffuser, don’t run it for hours on end, but just enough to get whatever smell that you’re looking for and then shut it off. And if you are concerned that your pet has been exposed, airing out the area, having a window open, running a fan or something like that to help dissipate material from the air would be the best practice. 

How can I protect my cat from toxins?

[00:13:39] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. That was a lot of toxins we went through- very helpful information. Hopefully, people will avoid having these situations because of the information that you’ve shared with them. Tell me little bit more about what you want pet owners to take away from this episode and how they can help protect their pet at home.

[00:14:00]Dr. Klippen: The key thing to remember is that cats are sneaky and they can get into things that you may not expect. Dogs don’t (typically) climb up onto countertops and things like that, but that might be something that your cat may do. So, pet proof your home by putting medications into Tupperwares so that you have to go through two layers to get to the medications. If you use a pill organizer, put it into a plastic bag or another Tupperware so that a cat can’t inadvertently knock it off of the countertop and have it pop open, allowing them to eat the pills inside. I think, putting things up into the medicine cabinet or into a cupboard, so a cat can’t even reach it, would be the number one thing when it comes to medications.

[00:14:53]Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. We talked about a lot of different medications that would be harmful for cats, so keeping those in a really safe place that the cat can’t get into is going to go a long way towards preventing disasters. What about the plants? What would you recommend for pet owners there? 

[00:15:10] Dr. Klippen: Again, try to familiarize yourself with knowing the different types of plants and flowers that are in the home. The ASPCA Poison Control has a wonderful online toxic and nontoxic plant-finder database that owners can search through, if they know either the scientific name or they know the commonplace name, to double check and make sure that it’s not something to be concerned with coming into the home. The other thing that I have done over the years- they make these fancy apps now, which you can download on your phone, that take pictures of different parts of plants and the plant-finder can tell you what type of plant it is. Referring back to the free service that they have online with ASPCA’s toxic and nontoxic list, you’re able to know whether or not this is something that we need to be concerned about. 

[00:16:10] Dr. Lancellotti: Do you have a specific plant finder app that you like to use? 

[00:16:13] Dr. Klippen: I like the free ones, personally. The last time I checked, there are like 6 or 7 out there, and even with the ones that you end up having to pay for, it’s only a couple of dollars. If you are a secret gardener at heart, it’s always a nice little thing to have, but it’s also really helpful in these situations where you’re like, “I have no idea what plant that is.” You can double check. 

[00:16:40] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect.  I think this is worth revisiting and rementioning, even though we’ve talked about it at the beginning of the episode – vomiting with cats. 

[00:16:59] Dr. Klippen: Yes. There are a lot of well-intentioned people out on the internet that give lots of advice, and you’ll always have to be very cautious with the free advice that you’re getting from people you don’t know, but trying to induce vomiting at home with cats, especially with the use of hydrogen peroxide, is not recommended. It actually can cause some pretty serious concern, so it is not something that I will ever have an owner do at home.  

[00:17:26] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, definitely. If you think your cat has ingested something, give a call to the ASPCA Poison Contol and Pet Poison Hotline and bring your pet into the emergency room, so that the emergency doctors there can provide professional care and make sure that they are giving the safest treatments for your pet. Be sure to give them as much information as possible so that they can make decisions quickly and be able to provide the appropriate therapy. If your pet has ingested something, if your cat was sneaky and got into something, or you went through something that we talked about on the show today, I would encourage you to join the Facebook group and tell us about that time. Tell us what you went through with your cat, so that other people can gain some knowledge from that.

Scratching the Itch

Dr. Lancellotti: I do like to end each episode with a segment called ‘Scratching The Itch.’ This is a short segment that will highlight something- either a human interest story, a product, a website, or just something that provides relief or makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch. So, Dr. Klippen, do you have a ‘scratching the itch’ for our listeners today? 

[00:19:07] Dr. Klippen: I do. I am a cat person and I have two little kitties who mean the world to me, but one of the things that I get frustrated with sometimes is just the different types of toys that are out on the market. Sometimes, I feel that some of the dog toys seem a lot better and I’m a little frustrated with cat toys, in general. I’ve recommended this particular product since finding it about 8 years ago (so that tells you how much I love it)- there is a specific catnip toy called the Yeowww. I don’t know what it is about these catnip toys, but it makes every single cat that I have ever given these little toys to just go crazy, to the point where one of my cats will walk around the house with this big chili pepper in her mouth, yelling at the top of her lungs at 2:00 in the morning, and she brings it to me every single morning and dumps it on my pillow. I have no idea what’s so special about these catnip toys, but I have owned dozens of them at this point. So, if you’re looking for a good catnip toy that does not lose its potency, then I would definitely check out this product. 

[00:20:35]Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. I will have a link to where you can find the Yeowww cat toys, so that your cat can wake you up at 2:00 in the morning. And you’re right. Dogs have the best toys, so it’s nice that somebody went out of their way to find something that is irresistible to cats. <That’ll be in the show notes, if people want to check out something that is safe for their pets, which their cat can enjoy.> Thank you for that recommendation, Dr. Klippen. 

[00:21:03] Dr. Klippen: Of course.

[00:21:04] Dr. Lancellotti: And thank you so much for coming on and sharing all of this information about different household toxins for cats. I think this is definitely going to help people and prevent a lot of emergency room visits, so I appreciate the wealth of knowledge that you shared and the time that you spent coming on and helping pet owners. Thank you very much.  

[00:21:25] Dr. Klippen: Of course, anytime. 

[00:21:27] Dr. Lancellotti: And for all of our listeners, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know. 


  1. “10 Most Common Toxicoses in Cats.” Veterinary Medicine, vol. 101, no. 6, June 2006, pp. 339–342.
  2. Freed, Erin. “A Pungent Poisoning: Onion Toxicosis in a Cat.” Veterinary Medicine, vol. 110, no. 8, Aug. 2015, pp. 204–209.
  3. Khan, Safdar A. “Cold and Cough Medications.” Merck Veterinary Manual,
  4. “Poisonous Plants.” ASPCA,
  5. Schildt, Julie C., et al. “Potpourri Oil Toxicity in Cats.” JOURNAL OF VETERINARY EMERGENCY AND CRITICAL CARE, vol. 18, no. 5, Oct. 2008, pp. 511–516.

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