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Ask Einstein: There's a Pool of Antifreeze in the Driveway! Help!

Avoid the green stuff, kitty! Ethylene glycol has saved cars but killed cats since 1927.

 |  Jan 21st 2014  |   4 Contributions


Dear Einstein,

I live outside where it’s cold, cold, cold. Some nice people moved into my old house after my humans left me behind. I now have a dog house with straw on the floor. They even put out dry cat food and water for me. So it could be worse. But in the winter, the water gets solid, and I can’t drink it.

There’s a green pool under the car in the driveway, but the dog down the street drank from it, and I haven’t seen him since. The neighborhood birds who pause to refresh don’t come back either. 

I’m really Frosty

Hey Thirsty,

Congrats on finding a family to help you out a bit. Hopefully, they’ll soon step up and bring you inside where you belong. In the meantime, water in cold weather is a problem for animals in areas north of the South. Actually, this winter, no place is exempt.

Cats really can't live outdoors, even with thick fur coats. Black and white cat in snow by Shutterstock

Don’t drink that green (or blue) stuff dripping underneath the car. Humans put antifreeze/coolant in their vehicles to keep the engine water from freezing or boiling away. 

Ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in most antifreeze, has been saving car radiators but killing cats and other living things since 1927. That’s when Prestone first sold pure ethylene glycol to Model T and Studebaker owners. Unlike homemade alternatives of the day (honey, sugar, molasses and the most popular, methyl alcohol), ethylene glycol wouldn’t boil away, and it was odorless ... as well as deadly. Parents of four-leggers and tiny two-leggers have long complained that the “sweet” taste of the killer liquid made kids and pets want to drink it.

So a couple of years ago some fat cats got together and agreed to voluntarily add the nasty-tasting anti-nail-biting chemical denatonium benzoate to antifreeze manufactured in the U.S. Now antifreeze/coolants made by Prestone, Old World, Valvoline, Chevron, Shell, Recochem, Safety Kleen and Exxon/Mobil all include the bittering agent.

But just because these coolants now taste worse than 100-year-old eggs doesn’t mean humans can stop biting their nails over their outside kitties’ safety. According to a 2005 study, “the cat lacks the receptor likely necessary for detection of sweet stimuli.” In that research, we house kitties, as well as some of our big cousins like tigers and cheetahs, showed no preference between sugar water and unflavored water, as opposed to dogs and humans, who were sweet on sweet stuff. Bottom line, we kitties aren’t attracted to sweets. 

Kitty, be careful that there isn't any antifreeze in that puddle. (Photo by ehud.)

Experts now think outside animals may drink from antifreeze puddles in extremely cold or hot weather cuz the green stuff is likely the only drinkable liquid available. 

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it only takes one teaspoon of ethylene glycol to ice a kitty. (Kittens take even less.) Dogs and kids may have to drink a couple of ounces for the same catastrophic end. Cats can become poisoned just by walking through antifreeze and absorbing it through the skin.

The first sign that you’ve drunk from the wrong well, is that you act, well, drunk. Only 30 minutes after first lapping ethylene glycol, you’ll appear lethargic, disorientated or uncoordinated, and you may show off your third eyelid. You may drink and pee more than usual, and you’ll begin to vomit. Ulcers will appear around your mouth or on your tongue. Your kidneys will go on strike and shut down. Your heart will race and you’ll develop breathing problems. After that you’ll likely slip into a coma and die.

Outdoor cats are at risk of extreme weather and poisoning.

Your humans should watch for odd behavior. This is also the first symptom of a legion of other health concerns. If they think you may have sipped antifreeze, go to the vet -- immediately. Getting medical attention as soon as they notice something is amiss could mean the difference in you staying earthbound and singing with the Choir Invisible. Animals who receive prompt veterinary treatment can recover -- but every wasted minute decreases your chances.

In one nationwide survey, two out of three veterinarians said they treat at least one case of antifreeze poisoning each year. 

Ways your humans can protect pets and wildlife

  • Never pour antifreeze into storm drains, septic systems, waterways or on the ground. It could seep through the soil and into the groundwater, or flow into waterways where it can kill fish and other animals. 
  • Switch to antifreeze containing propylene glycol. It’s not nontoxic, but it’s less lethal than brands containing the big "E."
  • Make sure outside animals have drinkable water year-round. Change water twice a day. Use a solar powered-heated water bowl (Solar Sipper). Keep traditional bowls warm by placing them on a Snuggle Safe microwave warming pad.

Hopefully your new humans will equip your cat house with a pet-safe heating pad or a Snuggle Safe. Until they come to their senses and bring you inside, think warm thoughts and avoid green puddles.

Einstein received help from Prestone Products Corporation, Humane Society Legislative Fund and Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680).

Learn more about your cat with Catster:

Einstein’s assistant, Dusty Rainbolt ACCBC, is the vice president of the Cat Writers’ Association, editor-in-chief of AdoptAShelter.com and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She’s the award-winning author of eight fiction and non-fiction books including her most recent paranormal mystery, Death Under the Crescent Moon. 

Got a question for he who knows everything feline? Just Ask Einstein in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Letters don't have to be written from the cat's point of view.) Remember, any change in your cat's behavior or activities could be a symptom of disease and should be investigated by your vet, even if it unfortunately involves glass tubes and cat posteriors.

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