Written by Brenda Bryden
A vase of fresh flowers to brighten up your interior or receiving flowers to mark a special occasion is always most welcome in anyone’s home, except if you have cats.
Cats, being the curious creatures they are, love to sniff and even chew on flowers and plants, and there’s nothing like a fresh vase of flowers to pique their interest. However, most shop-bought bouquets and arrangements by florists contain one or other plant or flower that’s toxic to animals, especially cats.
WONDERFUL TO SEE AND SMELL, BUT BAD NEWS FOR CATS
Lilies, in particular, are deadly, yet are almost a stock standard in most bouquets and, of course, in our gardens. It’s mostly the pollen that’s to blame! Lily pollen is nephrotoxic, meaning it affects the kidneys. Pollen is usually transported from one plant to the next by insects and can also be carried by air. So, pollen is easy to inhale, but worse, it can be absorbed through the skin by direct contact. Should your cat sniff a lily, get pollen on their nose and then inhale, the toxin enters their system. If they brush against the flower and pollen attaches to their fur, or they walk over any dropped pollen and get it on their paws, the pollen will enter their system from licking when they groom. Even drinking the water from the vase can cause lily poisoning. Regardless of how the toxin enters their system, you and your cat are in for trouble, trauma and possible heartbreak.
SYMPTOMS, DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
The smallest amount of pollen from a lily and certain other flowers, such as daffodils, can cause your cat to develop fatal kidney failure in less than three days. “The fast onset of clinical symptoms is due to the rapid absorption rate of the toxin, which appears to target the renal tubular epithelium,” says practising veterinarian, Dr Jean Russell. “Early signs of lily toxicity, which usually manifest within 12 hours of the toxin entering the system, include decreased activity level, drooling, vomiting, and loss of appetite. The first signs of kidney damage – increased urination, dehydration, disorientation, fast heartbeat, low blood pressure and possibly tremors or seizures – start about 12 to 24 hours after ingestion. Irreversible kidney failure occurs within 24 to 72 hours if the cat doesn’t receive veterinary treatment within the first 18 hours,” she explains.
“Kidneys regulate the body’s potassium levels, so if the kidneys begin to fail, potassium levels rise, causing irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness and twitching. The toxins can even produce neurological signs in cats,” Dr Russell explains.
Early veterinary intervention is the best chance your cat has of surviving, although the severity of the resulting kidney failure varies from cat to cat. Some cats only require minimal therapy, while others may need lengthy dialysis treatment in the hope that the kidneys will repair. Usually, if a cat receives treatment before urine production decreases, their chances of recovery are good, but your cat will be hospitalised for several days for treatment and monitoring.
“Making a diagnosis is difficult unless the pet owner finds a piece of chewed plant, or knows that the cat has been in contact with lilies. Your vet will request blood and urine samples to conduct kidney function and other tests,” Dr Russell explains. “If a cat is brought in soon after ingestion of pollen or any part of a lily and has not yet begun vomiting, we will induce vomiting. We often give activated charcoal orally to bind the toxins, which are then excreted.
“Fluids are important to prevent dehydration and to support kidney function and are given intravenously for 48–72 hours. Your cat may also have a catheter inserted to monitor urine output. Insufficient urine output is a sign the kidneys are failing. In severe cases, dialysis may be required.”
LOVELY LILIES NOT!
All members of the Lilium group produce a chemical that can damage cat kidneys. Every part of the plant – the stems, the leaves and the flowers – not just the pollen, is highly toxic for a cat.
Calla lilies (arum lilies) and Peace lilies are not of the Lilium group, so are not fatal to cats, but they can still cause unpleasant irritation of the mouth, tongue, throat and oesophagus. The March Lily is not a true lily, its botanical name is Amaryllis Belladonna, and it’s highly toxic for cats and dogs. Lily of the Valley contains a cardiotoxin which causes abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) and possible death. Colchicine – a toxin found in the Flame lily – can lead to multiorgan failure in cats if chewed.
So, what prize-winning solutions are there to ensure we protect our feline friends from lily poisoning?
First prize is to not bring any lilies into your home and remove any that may be planted in your garden. Second prize is if florists and retailers of flowers stop using lilies in their bouquets and arrangements, and third prize is for all flower arrangements and bouquets to carry warning labels (read the article in the box to see how one cat mom has ensured that her precious Pi’s death due to ingesting pollen from a lily has not been in vain). The wooden spoon prize, which is far from ideal, is to cut out the stamens of any lilies you receive to reduce the pollen drop and decrease risk.
A PROMISE TO PI
Kayli Vee Levitan is on a mission… one that may spare many pet owners from future heartbreak from the loss of their beloved cat. Kayli’s precious Pi succumbed to kidney failure on the 1st of February, 2023 due to ingesting pollen from a lily. Before Pi passed, Kayli vowed to do her utmost to ensure that cat owners are made fully aware of the lethal danger of lilies for their pets.
Pi’s death hasn’t been in vain; it was a sacrifice that galvanised Kayli to lobby for retailers selling flowers to include responsible warnings on their bouquets and plants, thereby heightening awareness among all cat owners. And, Pi’s life is being honoured by the changes afoot. Read on to learn about Kayli’s campaign …
THE EMAIL I SENT THE RETAILERS, THEN POSTED ONLINE WHEN I DIDN’T GET A REPLY:
Dear folks at PnP, Spar, Checkers, and Woolies,
I don’t want your money or products.
I come to you pleading for a simple change that could save lives. A change so simple that it just needs to be retyped. Let me explain.
Lilies are highly toxic to pets, especially cats.
A few particles of the pollen, blown in the wind and licked off a foot, result in kidney failure.
Kidney failure so dangerous, that if left untreated for more than 72 hours, there’s a 0% chance of survival.
My cat, Pi, was one of these cats.
She was in hospital for two weeks. She couldn’t eat or drink. She vomited for days on end. She needed dialysis, a feeding tube. She lost 1/3 of her body weight. Then she seemed to be recovering. They started calling her Miracle Cat. Two months later and she’s back in hospital because her kidneys simply can’t cope. We still don’t know what is going to happen. I have attached a photo of her as I type this mail.
Your labels need to be better.
Some of you have labels with no warnings. Some of you have labels that say “keep away from pets”. It’s not enough. A simple change to “WARNING: HIGHLY TOXIC TO CATS AND DOGS” could literally save lives. And could have saved me alone almost R30,000 in vet bills.
I don’t know if Pi will make it.
But I hope that this can be worthwhile in some way, by saving the lives of other cats out there, who really deserve better.
AFTER WRITING THIS:
My darling Pi passed away on the 1st of February. The doctors at TAH Rosmead tried everything that they could, but her kidneys just stopped working.
THE BIG RETAILER RESPONSE:
Woolies were the first to make a change and contact me. They immediately added “WARNING • HIGHLY TOXIC TO CATS AND DOGS” on the appropriate pages on their website. They say that they’ll implement a label change on the next run of labels, but due to lead times, this will take a little bit of time.
Next up was Netflorist. They said that they’re in the process of updating the website and are brainstorming solutions so receivers of lilies as gifts get the message too. This might be a label, a tag, or even a WhatsApp message. They said they’ll keep me in the loop. They also sent me a beautiful bunch of roses with a card saying that they’ll keep Pi’s legacy alive through the changes that they’re making.
Checkers then actually gave me a call, which I really appreciated. They said that they don’t have any online sales of lilies, but will be adjusting the labels in-store. Once again, understandably, this will take some time. They said they’ll keep me in the loop.
Finally, Pick n Pay messaged me to say that they’ll be changing all of their labels as soon as possible.
Overall, this will understandably take time, but they have all committed to the change and I believe that they will make it.
UP NEXT: SMALL RETAILERS
I’ve already approached one small retailer, Petals & Post, and they said they’d already seen my story on Twitter and were going to make the changes too. I plan on messaging other smaller florists and gifters to do the same.
I’m in communication with one of the big shelters about an idea I’ve had that’s a free and effective way to ensure that all new cat parents know the risks of toxic plants. Once I have the details clarified, I’ll be taking this to all of the shelters.
I’d love international retailers to get involved. We’ll get there – one share of this traumatic experience at a time.