Dr Alison Richards, BVSc MRCVS looks at possible household hazards

There are many substances around the home that could potentially cause our cat harm if they ingest or come into contact with them.  Cats are often more likely to ingest poisonous substances due to their fastidious grooming habits, the majority of times ingestion being entirely accidental.  The consequences of this can range from skin irritation to life threatening organ failure, so understanding how to keep your cat safe is important.

If you think your cat may have ingested any substance listed below, seek urgent veterinary attention.


Benzalkonium chloride is commonly found in industrial and domestic disinfectants such as antibacterial cleaners, household disinfectants and patio cleaners.  Cats may lick surfaces but more commonly will walk over cleaned surfaces and then groom, subsequently ingesting the chemical.  Benzalkonium chloride is an irritant which can cause skin and mouth ulceration.  Symptoms of ingestion include:

  • Anorexia/difficulty eating due to mouth and tongue ulceration
  • Lethargy
  • Drooling
  • High temperature

Symptoms are not apparent immediately so owners may not be aware their cat has come into contact with the substance until it is too late.  If you suspect benzalkonium chloride poisoning, contact your vets immediately.  If caught early, cats can be decontaminated, but once signs of poisoning develop, a vet will only be able to treat symptomatically, recovery can take several days.  Very rarely it can be fatal – generally in these cases, there is swelling of the throat.

There are household cleaners available that do not contain benzalkonium chloride and these are much safer.


Ethylene Glycol is widely used as antifreeze for car radiators, screen washes and de-icers, and in garden water features, but is unfortunately, highly toxic to cats.  Cats do appear to be attracted to the substance and only a very small amount, around a teaspoon of liquid, can be potentially lethal.  Cats may drink from a puddle or may walk over a puddle and lick their paws.  It is vitally important that as soon as you suspect your cat may have ingested antifreeze, emergency veterinary treatment is sought.  The substance causes severe kidney damage, which can be fatal.  Potential symptoms, which generally start thirty minutes after ingestion, include:

  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy and weakness and in some cases collapse
  • Wobbliness (the cat may seem drunk)
  • Increase in drinking and urination

Within the first few hours a vet may treat antifreeze poisoning with an antidote, ethanol - which is often in the form of vodka!  This prevents kidney damage but is only effective if used soon after poisoning.  After this the main treatment is supportive care to try and allow the kidneys to recover. 

Preventing poisoning

These key steps will reduce the chance of your cat coming into contact with these chemicals:

  • Mop up any spills
  • Use them at the appropriate dilution
  • Store them safely out of reach
  • If you have any suspicion your cat may have contacted or ingested a poisonous substance, contact your vet urgently.

Huge thanks to Francesca Watson, editor of The Cat magazine for giving me permission to use this article on The Daily Mews website.  This article first appeared in The Cat magazine, Summer 2019 issue.





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