Lilies are beautiful flowers, exotic in appearance and heavily scented. They are often included in bouquets and floral arrangements, but cat owners need to know that they are extremely poisonous if eaten, or even if pollen is accidentally swallowed whilst grooming after brushing against a lily.
It is thought that all parts of the lily flower and plant are poisonous to cats if eaten, and the effects are very serious and very fast. Only a very small amount needs to be eaten to cause devastating effects. Unfortunately kittens are most susceptible, not only because of their size but also because of their natural curiosity and tendency to investigate everything.
The poison acts mainly on the kidneys and is absorbed very rapidly. The first sign is usually severe vomiting but cats may also show loss of appetite, depression, salivation, twitching or collapse. Sadly, a high number of them will die due to irreversible kidney damage. Others will survive but have permanent kidney damage. Only a lucky few will survive without long-lasting effects.
The most important factor in treatment is seeking rapid veterinary help. Any cat which has been seen to eat part of a lily or is vomiting and has had possible contact with lilies, should be considered a veterinary emergency. There is no specific antidote to lily poisoning, but the chance of survival will be increased by giving fluid therapy as early as possible. By placing the cat on a drip, the kidneys are helped to eliminate the toxin and limit the damage to the kidneys. The rate of administration of fluids will be much higher than usual and will need to continue for several days if the cat is recovering. If a cat is presented very early, even before vomiting has occurred, it might be useful to induce vomiting to try to stop toxin being absorbed, or to lavage, or wash out, the stomach or to try to line the stomach with a charcoal substance to reduce further absorption. Other drugs may be given as well, particularly if there are neurological symptoms such as twitching, salivating or fitting.
I have seen several cases of lily poisoning in cats over the years, and sadly, at least half of them died or were put to sleep because the effects were so severe.
In my opinion, the warnings on lilies sold in some shops are not obvious enough. Some labels may carry a single line such as “Lily pollen is harmful to cats if eaten”, but this does not really convey the seriousness of the situation or advise the buyer that immediate action is needed. Some supermarket lilies have had the pollen bearing parts removed, but this does not change the fact that all parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten rather than just brushed against.
If you own a cat it is worth considering keeping lilies out of your house altogether, or at least out of reach. Bear in mind that a healthy curious cat can reach most things if it puts its mind to it!
If you are worried that your cat may have eaten part of a lily, or about any other health problems, please contact your vet immediately.