Last week, we received a phone call from an owner who saw her cat walking around with pollen on its face. She had just received a bouquet of lilies, had put them up high, but then saw her cat in that area. A quick internet search revealed that lilies were toxic and she wanted to know what to do.
We informed her to come in right away. Although sometimes the internet has stories that scare you unnecessarily, the danger of lilies to cats is not scary or loud enough. In a recent study of 48 households with cats exposed to lilies, only 27% of owners knew that lilies were toxic. In those cases, the owners thought the lilies were out of the way enough but the cats reached them anyway.
Asiatic lilies, the big beautiful ones that are especially common around Easter, are incredibly toxic to cats. The lilies that are toxic are from the Lilium or Hemerocallus species. Common names include Stargazer, Easter, Tiger lily, and day lilies. We don’t know what the toxic compound is but we do know that it concentrates in the pollen and that only a small amount is enough to cause acute kidney shutdown. Lily of the valley is not a true lily and therefore does not cause acute renal failure. It has cardiac glycosides (similar to digitalis) that can cause other symptoms. Peace and calla lilies contain calcium oxalate crystals and usually cause immediate oral and GI irritation and vomiting but do not cause kidney failure
As with many toxicities, signs don’t happen instantly. With lilies, some vomiting may be seen within a few hours. Cats then often seen to be OK or a little lethargic but then become very sick again in 24-72 hours. Elevations in renal values can be detected on blood work as early as 12 hours after ingestion. If treatment is delayed for 24-48 hours, the insult to the kidneys may be irreversible.
If you suspect your cat has chewed on a lily, it is best to err on the side of caution and seek treatment. Your veterinarian may induce vomiting (if the cat has not already vomited parts of the plant) and follow up with a slurry of activated charcoal to bind up any remaining toxins in the GI tract. Intravenous fluids are recommended for at least 48 hours. Baseline blood work is obtained and renal values are monitored every 24 hours. If caught early and treated aggressively, the prognosis is good and no lasting damage occurs. In the study mentioned above looking at cats exposed to lilies, 90% did well with appropriate treatment but 10% did have renal damage.
In our recent phone call, we recommended aggressive treatment, the cat was hospitalized on IV fluids for 48 hours, and did fine with no long term problems.
So this spring, tell your friends, tell your colleagues that yes, some pollen could kill your cat.
For more information on toxic plants, see http://www.aspca.org/.
Slater MR, Gwaltney-Brant S. Exposure Circumstances and Outcomes of 48 Households with 57 Cats Exposed to Toxic Lily Species. JAAHA 2011; 47: 386.