As far as plants go, lilies are among the most beautiful. They smell lovely and seem to last forever, making them a fantastic addition to any floral arrangement. Humans adore them and most animals aren’t bothered by them, but for cats, lilies are positively deadly. And it doesn’t take much. A single bite of leaf or lick of pollen can be all it takes to send a cat into irreversible kidney failure. As cat owners, we all need to be aware of how dangerous this common household plant can be, and take the necessary steps to keep our unsuspecting pets safe.
What makes lilies so toxic to cats?
• We don’t know exactly which chemical within the lily is so dangerous, but we do know that ingesting the smallest amount of leaf, stem, flower or even pollen can be deadly.
• Most types of lilies are poisonous, including asian lilies (Lily asiatica), tiger lilies (Lilium tigrinum), stargazer lilies (Lilium orientalis) and Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum).
• Other animals, including dogs and rabbits, can eat lilies with just a bit of mild stomach upset and do not seem to suffer from toxicity.
What are the symptoms of lily poisoning?
• At first, lily poisoning can mimic other cases of ‘dietary indiscretion’ as we like to call it (eating something that they shouldn’t have), so it can be difficult to know what has happened unless you saw them eat it. Signs include vomiting and lethargy, lack of appetite and shaking. If your cat does vomit, always take a look to see what they brought up – this may be icky but it could save your cat’s life if you can tell the vet what they got into.
• These initial symptoms can actually disappear for a few hours to a few days, after the plant has passed through the digestive tract but before the real disease becomes obvious.
• Within a few days, however, the symptoms become those of kidney failure. This includes increased thirst and urination, dehydration, and worsening lethargy, vomiting and inappetence. Eventually, this increased urination turns into a decrease in urination, and finally no urination at all, which indicates that the kidneys are no longer functioning.
What can be done about it?
• If you think your cat has eaten any amount of any part of a lily, it is critical that you take them to the vet right away, even before clinical signs appear. And of course, if you notice any of the symptoms listed above, get them to the vet immediately. If it happens outside of your vet’s normal opening hours, phone the designated emergency clinic.
• If they make it to the vet within a few hours of ingestion, the vet will likely induce vomiting and possibly give a substance called activated charcoal, which will help lessen the effects of the toxins.
• Then, or if too much time has already gone by, the vet may put your cat on a drip and give IV fluids for as long as necessary. These fluids will help support the kidneys as they try to process the poison and flush out any toxins that do make it into the blood stream.
• There is no special blood test to diagnose lily toxicity, so many cases go undiagnosed. Your vet will however likely run a general blood and urine test to check how badly the kidneys may have been damaged. These tests will probably need to be repeated several times during their stay in hospital.
What happens next?
• If you are able to get your cat to the vet within a few hours of ingestion, the chances are much greater that they will make it through the incident with the appropriate medical care. It is vitally important that your cat see the vet as soon as possible to begin treatment.
• If it has been more than 4 hours since ingestion and the lily toxins have already been absorbed, the prognosis is significantly worse and kidney damage to some degree is likely.
• If no treatment is given, or the kidneys have been damaged to the point where urination is starting to decrease, then sadly the chance of survival is very low.
• The feline kidney is a very delicate structure and unlike other organs such as the skin or the liver, it does not heal itself once damaged. Therefore, the chance of permanent kidney damage is high and even if the cat survives the initial incident, they may suffer from chronic kidney disease later in life. Long-term fluid therapy and regular blood tests may be necessary to monitor kidney function even after recovering from the initial toxicity.
How can lily poisoning be prevented?
• The best way to prevent lily poisoning in your own home is to prevent lilies from entering your home in the first place. This is easier said than done when well-meaning significant others or dinner guests bring home a lovely bouquet, however most people will understand your concerns.
• Remember, however, that it’s not just lilies in your house that can be deadly, always check your own garden for these and other toxic plants. The internet is a good resource for finding out which plants are child and pet-friendly and which should be avoided, just always make sure you trust the source of your information.
• Spread the word – by telling other people about the dangers of lilies, you are helping to increase awareness of the problem. The ISFM (International Society of Feline Medicine) has launched a campaign to help educate the public about lily toxicity. Their website has informative posters and tags to be put around floral arrangements that contain lilies at the florist. The more people know about lily toxicity, the safer all of our cats will be.
If you are concerned that your cat may have eaten any part of a lily, or any other toxic material, contact your vet immediately. If you are sure lilies are not to blame our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide can be used to check out any problems you are worried about.