Can a Blade of Grass Kill a Cat?
Let me start by saying that this article is not about the horrors of allowing cats to go outside. In the third year of veterinary school we were taught that beating dead horses does not bring them back to life. I've talked about outdoor cats ad nauseam over the last few months, so I'm done for now. (Note: I absolutely reserve the right to delve back into the subject at a later date.)
So, nope, this article is not about outdoor cats. It's about grass. Indoor cats can be exposed to grass, too. Kitty grass is for sale in pet stores everywhere, so indoor cats can get grass blades stuck in their throats, too. (Although I've never removed a grass blade from an indoor ... stop! Control yourself, Barchas!)
Grass blade season has been running strong this year. What on earth, you ask, is grass blade season? Why, it's the time of year when cats get blades of grass stuck in the back of their throats.
How does such a thing happen? Only the cats know for sure, but I imagine two likely scenarios. In one, a grass-eating cat gags as she swallows the blade, causing her to cough it into her pharynx (more on that in just a bit). In the other, a grass-eating cat swallows the grass but then vomits, with a blade not making it into the mouth and thereby getting stuck in the pharynx.
To understand grass blades in cats, one must know a bit about feline anatomy. Cats' mouths and noses meet up in an area called the pharynx. The pharynx exists in the space between the mouth (which ends at the soft palate) and the esophagus and larynx (the voice box, where the windpipe begins). In other words, the pharynx is the back of the throat, and it's where grass blades get lodged.
Cats with so-called pharyngeal grass blades exhibit discomfort, coughing, hard swallowing, gagging and retching. The symptoms may be triggered by activity or stimulation of the throat, or they may simply start up all on their own. They may not eat or drink due to the discomfort caused by the foreign body.
To search for a grass blade, the cat must be anesthetized. The mouth should be gently held open with one hand. A small dental mirror in other hand will aid with visualization of the affected area. A third hand is occupied with an instrument (usually, believe it or not, a spay hook) that retracts the soft palate. An instrument called a transilluminator is used to light up the area (this also must be held by hand -- number four). Once the grass blade is identified, a fifth hand must hold a pair of mosquito forceps to extract it.
This is a tricky process, not not only because several people will be clustered around the cat's face with their hands all occupying scarce territory. Usually the grass blade must be teased out. If too much traction is applied the blade will break, leaving the remaining portion deeper in the pharynx and therefore harder to extract. (Note: for those lucky and rare veterinarians with access to endoscopy, the process is a tad less complex, but it still usually requires at least two people.)
As you might surmise, removing feline pharyngeal grass blades is quite a pain. And sometimes vets that search for grass blades come up empty handed (so to speak). But grass blades, like foxtails, are satisfying when they are found and removed. The problem is solved, and the patient will get better.
The current grass blade season reminds me of a case I saw years ago. It was a lesson that grass blades, like foxtails, have the potential to be lethal.
A middle-aged calico was brought to my office with a two week history of coughing, gagging, hard swallowing, and poor appetite. The symptoms had come on suddenly. She was alert and responsive, but she coughed when I gently stimulated the underside of her throat. She was emaciated and dehydrated. The lymph nodes near her throat were enlarged. It seemed like a probable case of a type of cancer called lymphoma, until I asked a crucial question: Did the cat go outside? (I'm just telling a story here. I'm not beating any dead horses.) The answer was yes.
I was suddenly suspicious of a pharyngeal grass blade causing severe throat inflammation leading to poor appetite and thirst. The foreign body was likely triggering an immune system response that was causing lymph node enlargement.
The cat was admitted and stabilized for anesthesia with IV fluids. Blood work showed increased white blood cells, which can occur with infection (or leukemic lymphoma, and I'll admit that at this point I doubted myself quite a bit). The cat was anesthetized and, after a little searching, a grass blade (in a pool of pus) was found in and removed from her pharynx. Problem solved. But if the owners had waited another week she probably would have been dead.
The moral of the story is simple. Keep your cat insi -- wait, that's not the moral of this particular story. The moral is not to let your cat suffer with symptoms of a pharyngeal grass blade for any longer than absolutely necessary.
Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas:
- 11 Cat Emergencies that Need Immediate Veterinary Attention
- Why Dental Disease Is the Most Common Problem Cats Face
- Why Do Vets Take Cats "Into the Back?" What Happens There?
- A "Day" in the Life of an Emergency Vet Is Actually a Night Shift
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)