As a man, it is my duty not to like flowers. But even I must confess that on a strictly aesthetic basis, lilies are beautiful. Stargazer lilies, of course, are the best (even though they’re pink).
As an animal lover, however, I needn’t ever feel conflicted about buying lilies for my wife. We live in a lily-free house. You see, lilies are toxic to cats.
Not only that, but those beautiful flowers — so beautiful that I have met many cats named Lily — are deadly. Stargazers, it turns out, are among the worst. Naming your cat Lily is like naming your child Cyanide.
Spring, at last, is making its way into our lives. And that means lily season (which is centered on Easter — and Easter lilies) is about to begin.
Every part of the plant is toxic. Cats usually eat the leaves, but the flowers are also poisonous. A cat who walks through lily pollen and then grooms his paws is at risk. The toxin (or toxins — there may be more than one) is unknown.
Lily ingestion causes many cats to vomit. That is the best-case scenario, because at least it clears the plant from the system. Sadly, lily toxicity also affects the kidneys. Cats in the early throes of lily toxicity suffer from hypersalivation, poor appetite, and reduced activity. As toxicity progresses, the kidneys begin to fail. This may result in increased urination, which is then followed by absence of urination — which appears to be the point of no return. Death by kidney failure usually follows.
Treating lily ingestion is very frustrating for all involved. If the exposure occurred within the last few hours and your cat has not already vomited, your vet will try to remove the plant matter from the stomach. This process is called decontamination, and it is devilishly difficult in cats. It’s complicated by the fact that cats cannot be reliably made to throw up by veterinarians or their owners.
If you have a cat who vomits almost daily anyway, she may not react at all when you or the vet try to make her throw up. Apomorphine, which is the standard drug for causing dogs to vomit, generally has no effect on cats, and is not recommended. Hydrogen peroxide causes some cats to throw up, but it causes severe ulceration of the esophagus and stomach in others. Salt may cause some cats to vomit, but it can be fatally toxic as well. A medicine called xylazine is the most effective tactic to cause feline vomiting, but in my experience it works about half of the time.
Vets with access to endoscopy can use the technique to remove plant matter from the stomach, but endoscopy is not universally available.
Even if (and it’s a big if) you can rapidly decontaminate your cat, a cat who has consumed lilies may still be in big trouble. The lily’s toxin(s) appear to be rapidly absorbed, so affected cats might need several days of hospitalization for intravenous fluids. Central venous pressure is monitored in some cases so that the fluids can be pushed to the limit of the heart’s ability to withstand them. If that sounds complicated and scary, it’s because it is.
Treatment is usually successful, although stressful, as long as you get your cat to the vet before her kidneys stop producing urine. After that point of no return, options are limited. Hemodialysis and other advanced techniques appear to be the only options, and even they may fail.
There is only one solution for cat owners. Your house should be lily-free. No Easter lilies. No stargazer lilies. No strange hybrids that are said to be less toxic. The risk is simply too great. Although to this day my wife believes that I’m just looking for an excuse not to buy flowers, I swear my motives are pure. Lilies are deadly toxic to cats.
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)