Antifreeze, which often contains ethylene glycol, is very good at doing what it says on the bottle. If you have ice on your windscreen or want to keep various pipes and water features from freezing up, then adding antifreeze will do the job. What the bottle DOESN’T always say, however, is that antifreeze is so toxic to cats, dogs and other small mammals and that it takes only about a teaspoon in a cat or a tablespoon in a dog of the substance to bring about a rapid and unpleasant death. In fact, a recent news article has highlighted the fact that around 50 cats a month in the UK are killed by antifreeze poisoning.
Why is it such a big problem?
Antifreeze is a commonly used chemical, especially in the winter months, but many people are unaware of the danger it poses to animals. Even small children are at risk, because ethylene glycol has a sweet taste that most mammals wouldn’t think twice about consuming. It can leak out of damaged car pipes and onto the drive where cats then lick it up, or perhaps a small amount of the substance was left in the bottle and left open after use. Ethylene glycol can be found in radiator coolant, windscreen de-icing agents, motor oils, hydraulic brake fluid, paints, photographic chemicals and various solvents. A worrying new trend is for people to use it in their garden water features to keep them from freezing – an extremely dangerous action as many cats and also wildlife use these features to drink from. Unfortunately, some heartless people also use the substance to intentionally poison cats that get into their garden, and there are several cases of this under investigation at the moment.
How does it affect cats?
Initial signs include behavioural changes, such as looking groggy or ‘drunk’, which makes sense because the chemical binds to the same receptors as alcohol in the body. These initial signs may only last for 1-6 hours, then they seem to recover but although they may appear to temporarily feel better, the real damage has already begun. Ethylene glycol causes crystals of calcium oxalate to form within the kidneys and because these crystals cannot be dissolved once formed, the damage is irreversible and rapid kidney failure results. Within hours to days the cat may start urinating more, then not at all as the kidneys shut down. This results in a build-up of toxins within the blood causing severe lethargy and lack of appetite, panting, vomiting, oral or gastric ulceration and sometimes coma or seizures. Death almost always occurs within a few days.
Is there any treatment?
If you are lucky enough to see your cat or dog ingest antifreeze and can get them to the vet within about 3 hours before the product has a chance to be metabolised, then treatment is possible though the recommended treatment is very expensive and most vets aren’t able to stock it. Interestingly, one of the treatments for antifreeze toxicity is ethanol (aka the ‘vodka drip’ you may have heard about), as the alcohol prevents the ethylene glycol from binding to receptors in the body. This treatment is dangerous in itself however, so the prognosis for recovery is still guarded. If treatment is successful, affected animals will likely have to stay in hospital for several days on a drip to flush out any remaining toxins from the body and some degree of permanent kidney damage is likely.
What can we do to cut down on antifreeze poisonings?
The best thing you can do at home is to not use antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol. Many newer products now contain propylene glycol, which isn’t nearly as toxic. Have your car serviced regularly to ensure there are no leaks onto the drive, and if you do spot a leak, clean it up immediately and dispose of all waste or empty containers properly. Many suppliers put bright fluorescent green dye into their products so it’s easy to spot in a puddle on the drive. Most vets stock a UV or black light which makes this dye glow brightly and finding the dye on the cat’s paws or muzzle can be a good way to confirm exposure. If your neighbour has a water feature in their garden, it might be wise to confirm that they are not using antifreeze and to inform them of the dangers if they are not already aware. Another recommendation that has been suggested is to put a bitter-tasting substance (Bitrex) in the antifreeze so that any sensible animal or child would spit it out as soon as they tasted it, but not all companies regularly do this. This would also cut down on intentional poisonings. At the very least, all products containing ethylene glycol should be clearly labelled as being fatal to animals.
Spread the word – antifreeze kills!
Amy Bergs DVM MRCVS - Visit The Cat Doctor website by clicking HERE