Toxic Foods and Items That Cats Can't Eat

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Maine Coon smelling a plant.
Maine Coon Smelling A Plant.

There are many substances around the home that can hurt cats so it is important for cat owners to be aware of what can cause their kitties harm. Keeping harmful substances out of a cat's reach or locked up and checking the label before feeding something to your cat can help decrease the likelihood of your cat ingesting these items.

Why Are Some Substances Harmful to Cats?

Cats metabolize many things differently than humans and dogs so this means their bodies may absorb things in a way that can cause them harm. Sometimes serious complications such as heart, kidney, or liver failure occur when a cat ingests or is exposed to an unsafe substance but other times it simply causes GI upset such as vomiting and diarrhea. Regardless of the severity of symptoms though, it is best to avoid items that can cause discomfort as well as toxicity to a cat.

Other substances may not be intended to be consumed by a cat and can cause issues like obstructions and foreign bodies in cats. Small toys, holiday decorations, and household items that are small enough for a cat to swallow can cause serious issues even though they aren't toxic.

tan and white cat on white bedspread
tan and white cat on white bedspread
brown tabby cat laying on white textile
brown tabby cat laying on white textile

What Substances are Unsafe for Cats?

  • Alpha Lipoic Acid: This ingredient is used as an antioxidant in some dog and human products but is toxic to cats. It can cause low blood sugar, seizures and liver toxicity in cats.
  • Caffeine: Large amounts of caffeine can cause serious issues in a cat. Problems don't usually occur from a cat simply licking your coffee but if it eats ground coffee or caffeine pills meant for humans it can cause problems with internal organs and the nervous system.
  • Alcohol: Cats should never consume alcohol.
  • Chocolate: Since chocolate contains not only sugar and caffeine but also theobromine, complications with the heart and brain can occur. The darker the chocolate is, the more dangerous it is to your cat and death can occur if enough is consumed.
  • Dairy: Despite popular belief, cats that are no longer nursing do not have the digestive capabilities to break down the proteins and sugars found in dairy products. If an adult cat eats or drinks dairy, diarrhea may occur.
  • Curumin longa: More commonly known as turmeric, some extracts of this plant typically cause vomiting in cats so they are best avoided. They are often found in both dog and human supplements.
  • Medications: There are a number of medications or drugs that can be toxic to a cat. Tylenol (acetaminophen) administration in cats causes methemoglobinemia in their blood decreasing ability of oxygen to be delivered to cells which can lead to seizures and in severe cases death. In addition to acetaminophen, naproxen sodium, ibuprofen, heart medications, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and ADD/ADHD medications can also be deadly to a cat if ingested. Human medications should never be given to a cat without consulting with a veterinarian as many medications are toxic to them. In addition to unique toxicities, acceptable doses of medication in cats is often very different then that in dogs and humans.
  • Essential Oils: Whether inhaled or applied topically, essential oils (especially the highly concentrated ones) can be toxic to cats. The general rule is to never apply essential oils to pets as in addition to the dermal contact, they can ingest the oils when they 'groom' themselves. Different oils have different levels of toxicity based on their concentration, formulation and more. Toxicosis from essential oils can lead to nausea, vomiting, stumbling and more. Does this mean you can not have an oil diffuser? The ASPCA says not necessarily. It is recommended that if you do have an oil diffuser to keep it out of reach from pets and always make sure they have a way to escape the area the diffuser is in.
  • Grapes and Raisins: It is unknown if grapes and raisins are as concerning for cats as they are dogs but there have been some reports of kidney failure in cats that have eaten them. Because of this, it is better to avoid letting a cat eat these items.
  • Plants: Be very mindful of the plants you bring into your home when you own a cat. Seemingly harmless flowers like lilies (easter lily, tiger lily and other members of the Liliaceae family) can cause acute kidney failure and death with seemingly minimal exposure. Our suggestion is prior to bringing flowers or plants into the home (this includes flowers you receive in a bouquet) always check to make sure they are safe for cats on the ASPCA website. Autumn crocus, amaryllis, azaleas, chrysanthemums, daisies, mums, cyclamen, oleander, daffodils, dieffenbachia (dumb canes), hyacinths, kalanchoe (mother-in-law plants), lilies, lilies of the valley, peace lilies, pothos, devil's ivy, Spanish thyme, marijuana, narcissus, English ivy, mistletoe, poinsettias, yew, castor beans, rhododendrons, sago palms, tulip plants and other plants and herbs can all be unsafe or toxic to a cat. Ingestion of some of these plants or herbs can cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart issues, and even death.
  • Onions, Chives and Garlic: These edible plants can cause major blood problems such as red blood cell rupture in cats and should not be fed.
  • String items: Tinsel, floss, yarn, easter grass and other linear items have been known to be consumed by cats and cause foreign bodies. They can cut through the tongue and intestines and be life-threatening.
  • Yeast dough: Raw dough containing yeast can cause issues in a cat if it eats it due to the fermentation of the yeast and expansion of the dough in the stomach.
  • Chemicals: Exposure to antifreeze, bleach, detergents, de-icing salts that cats walk on and then lick their paws, dog flea and tick medication, fertilizers, herbicides, insect and rodent bait and other household chemicals can be toxic to cats and cause a variety of issues including seizures and death.
  • Other small items: Anything that is small enough to be swallowed, including pieces of toys meant for cats or children, can cause a problem in a cat. Obstructions and foreign bodies can occur and sometimes even cause toxicities depending on what the items are made of.

What Should You Do if Your Cat Ate an Unsafe Substance?

If your cat ate something that is unsafe you should contact a pet poison center. The Pet Poison Helpline at (855) 764-7661 or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435 charge a fee for their services but will be able to provide you with detailed information and recommendations on what to do depending on the specific item your cat ate. A veterinary visit may be needed depending on what is recommended.