By Dr. Leslie Ross
Colorful, fragrant and showy lilies brighten our world and help most people feel a sense of comfort and well being the whole year-round. The Easter lily or the trumpet lily is a particularly popular plant at Easter. Its beautiful trumpet-shaped blossoms symbolize purity, hope, and life, the spiritual essence of Easter and all the promises of spring. Very, unfortunately, when parts of these plants are consumed by cats, these popular plants can shorten the life of the hapless kitty to days. Similarly, as daylilies and Tiger lilies pop up in many gardens in the ensuing summer months. these too can be exceedingly toxic to cats.
Statistically speaking, most lily toxicity cases occur indoors. It is a sad fact that very young cats are often the victims of lily poisoning even despite conscientious efforts by many owners to keep their inquisitive creatures away from the house lilies. These kittens are often attracted to floral arrangements or newly acquired plants because they are a fresh feature in an otherwise very familiar environment. In the course of investigating the flower arrangement or lily, the cat may play with and sometimes chew parts of the plant.
It is unsafe to assume that only younger cats are at risk. For yet-to-be-explained reasons, cats, in general, are strongly attracted to the taste of lilies; to such an extent that they may ignore all the non-toxic plants in a bouquet and only eat the lily! Cats of almost any age can push doors open or jump up to areas owners thought were inaccessible to get to these plants. This activity can easily go unnoticed by owners or may occur while the cat is alone at home. If outdoors, even for a short period of time. Cats who may have access to gardens are at risk of poisoning as well. Poisoning can occur even if plant pieces are not actually eaten but also possibly from the kitty just rubbing up against the plant and then later ingesting lily pollen during a self-cleaning session. Even a cat with a minor exposure, such as would occur with the biting of a leaf or with getting lily pollen on his or her whiskers or hair coat can suffer some very serious consequences!
The substance in poisonous lilies that injures the kidneys has not been identified, but all parts of the lily are poisonous – flowers, stamen, stem, leaves, and roots. The toxic dose is also unknown, but ingestion or even in some cases; just mouthing of very small amounts of plant material can result in a tragic outcome.
Cats seem to be unique amongst domestic pets in their susceptibility to this intoxication, possibly due to differences in their metabolism. (For the same sort of reason, cats also can be easily poisoned by human medications such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, Tylenol and aspirin, and these too are lethal for cats in doses that would be safe for humans). Interestingly, dogs that consume large amounts of the lily plant toxin develop only mild gastrointestinal signs, while rabbits show no signs of toxicity at all.
The two main plant species of concern causing poisoning in cats belong to the Liilium and Hemerocallis groups. Included in these species are Stargazers, tiger lilies and daylilies. Lily of the valley is not a true lily, but it is still a toxic plant for a different reason. This plant contains digitalis, a heart stimulant chemical similar to a chemical found in foxglove. Peace lilies are also not true lilies and although they contain calcium oxalate crystals that can cause mouth lesions, they are not likely to cause more serious problems then this.
Even if exposure is not certain, a cat that seems suddenly not well that is suspected to have had recent access to a toxic plant should be seen by a veterinarian immediately. The first signs of toxicity are vomiting, depression and loss of appetite. These signs usually occur within 2 hours and may settle down after another 12 hours. Although an affected cat is likely to remain depressed, the poor victim may appear to improve briefly as the vomiting episodes diminish, with or without treatment. It is likely, however, that painful kidney failure will develop soon after resulting in the cat becoming critically ill within one to three days. At this time the stricken cat may drink much more than usual. If left untreated, cats usually die in 3 to 7 days.
Cats treated within 18 hours of exposure to lilies frequently can be saved. Treatments generally include aggressive intravenous fluid therapy (sometimes for days), and medically inducing vomiting if the actual time of ingestion of the toxin is known to be recent and if the stricken kitty hasn’t already vomited. Additionally, at times, these patients are given activated charcoal orally, and sometimes enemas to purge their bodies of the toxin. More severe cases may require abdominal organ washes and treatments of up to 14 days to allow the cat’s damaged kidney tissue to regenerate. Quick decisions by cat owners to seek veterinary care result in a much more positive outcome in most cases of lily plant poisoning.
Common scenarios that can lead to a death sentence for an innocent cat can occur when live lilies or fresh cut lily bouquets are received as a gift, purchased for the home, purchased as a gift for another person, or even if one is plant-sitting for a friend/neighbor at the cat’s home. Since the vast majority of decorative lily plants and bouquets are purchased at Easter from non-florists such as grocery and department stores it is important for the word to get out to the general population that lilies have to be kept away from cats!
As briefly described above, the treatment for lily intoxication is intensive and expensive, typically involving aggressive treatments and hospitalization for several days. Generally, the financial burden is high and even with the most diligent therapy; a successful outcome is not assured. Very, unfortunately, sometimes the only option left is euthanasia as a final act of compassion.
Summing up, it is in the interests of cat owners and cat lovers worldwide to make the danger of lily ingestion WELL KNOWN in their communities. If someone you know is sending flowers to relatives and friends for the spring holidays (or any time of year), make sure that they specifically request “no lilies” in the bouquets or arrangements that are going to homes with cats. Most on-line floral delivery services have the option of making special requests to allow the exclusion of lilies from the delivery of flowers to a cat owner’s home. It is easy to see that prevention is much better than an attempted cure.