Are Lily Plants Poisonous to Cats?

It was a week before Valentine’s Day 2016 and as an adoring husband I made my plans to have flowers delivered to the College Manor Veterinary Hospital to be brought home to my wife Dr. Jacqui. And because of our cat CiCi, who despite her age is still very inquisitive, I specifically asked the person at the flower shop that the arrangement not contain any Lilies.

She was a bit perplexed by this very specific request. I told her about CiCi, her nosey nature, and the significant health risk that Lilies pose to our feline friends. She was surprised and as a cat owner herself, was unaware of the toxicity of Lilies.

So here we go…

The term “Lily” refers to a large group of plants, but only those considered “True Lilies” and “Daylilies” are considered toxic to cats. The actual toxin is unknown, but it is present within all parts of the plant, but especially the flowers. So even minor exposure to the leaves, flowers, stems or pollen can cause serious problems for your cat. Cats seem to be especially attracted to Lilies as well and will often seek them out to chew on. Brushing by a flower and having pollen cling to the fur can cause a secondary toxicity when they groom themselves later, thereby ingesting the pollen and the toxin along with it. Interestingly, Lilies are not toxic to dogs!

What happens after ingestion of Lilies can be quite horrible. After absorption, the toxin targets the kidneys in an especially aggressive way. Sudden and severe damage to the kidney tissue results, sending them in kidney failure. This can take less than 12 – 24 hours, and left untreated, death can occur in 3 – 5 days. Initially, cats will become sullen, start vomiting and show a progressive loss of appetite. As the damage to the kidney’s worsen, toxins build up in the blood and cause weakness, severe vomiting, coma and ultimately death. Horrible.

If caught early and treated aggressively before the start of serious illness, many of these cats can survive. Even minor exposure or “potential exposure” warrants a trip to the Veterinary Hospital. If we can get a cat to vomit up the ingested plant, and prevent further absorption of the toxin with medication, we can potentially limit the damage done to the kidneys. But these patients still need supportive care in the hospital for up to 3 days in the form of intravenous fluids to protect the kidneys and drugs to prevent nausea, and help prevent stomach and intestinal ulcers from forming.

Some cats who survive may be left with permanent damage to the kidneys. But the earlier the situation is identified and treated, the less likely this is to happen.

So as Easter and (at long last!) spring approach, those of us fortunate enough to share our homes with cats must be aware that within that beautiful flower arrangement or colourful corner of the garden is something that could make your cat very, very sick. As I tell our newly adopted kitten families “If you have cats in your life, you can’t have lilies”.

Jacqui loved the flowers. CiCi gave a passing nod of approval...

Written by: Dr. Shawn Bruch