PROTECTING YOUR CAT

From Household and Environmental Hazards

by Joelle Steele

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How safe is your cat's world? It may not be as safe as you think. There are many seemingly innocuous household items which can be dangerous, even lethal, in the wrong paws. You can protect your cat from injury, illness, or even death, by learning about the most common hazards, and some not-so-obvious dangers, and "cat-proofing" your home.

THE KITCHEN

Household cleaners are composed of highly toxic chemicals which "offgas" (emit into the air). People as well as cats suffer symptoms such as red eyes, itchy skin, headaches, etc., from constant low level exposure. Your cat, being so small, is much more susceptible to these chemicals, and requires only minimal exposure to suffer symptoms you may not even notice.

Paws walking over cleaned but not rinsed surfaces, can pick up chemicals which are later ingested in grooming. The rest get absorbed by the skin. The same thing happens if your cat brushes against leaky bottles or inhales powdered cleansers or insecticides. Childproof locks for kitchen cabinets work just as well for cats.

The EPA names formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene as the top three toxic indoor pollutants. Paper towels, grocery bags, and waxed paper contain formaldehyde, which irritates the mucous membranes. Benzene, found in plastics and detergents, irritates the eyes and skin, and chronic low level exposure causes headaches, drowsiness, and nervousness. Trichloroethylene, found in cleaning solvents and varnishes, is a potent liver carcinogen.

Aluminum foil rolled into a ball is enticing, but if chewed, small particles may be ingested. Ditto for plastic bags. Small plastic bags are unlikely to suffocate a cat, but a dry cleaning bag could. Knives and forks can be dangerous if left pointed end up in a rack where a cat could accidentally fall onto them. Twist ties have thin wires running through them which may pierce the mouth. Refrigerator doors should be watched carefully, especially if you have a small kitten who likes to explore new places. And, since many cats are attracted to warm clothes dryers, check inside before you close the door.

Most human food is okay for cats, but chocolate contains theobromide which is toxic to them. Water is as safe for your cat as it is for you. The EPA has identified over 700 pollutants occurring regularly in drinking water (which is less than ten percent of the total number of drinking water pollutants). Don't make your cat drink water you wouldn't. But, don't switch him to mineral water either. Distilled water is best for humans and animals because it has had most of the heavier metals and salts removed.

THE BATHROOM

If you insist on using the toxic blue stuff in the toilet bowl, keep the lid down. Your cat won't drink it but may fall in. Litter box deodorizers are toxic and offgas. Sift and change boxes often. The litter that causes urine to clump is a good alternative. Also, hang a few cedar sachets nearby.

Toilet and facial tissues contain formaldehyde. Some contain benzene in their dyes and from the paper bleaching process. Buy unscented, unprinted, uncolored varieties and, and while most cats won't bother them, try to keep them out of that room and away from tissues.

Aspirin and other medications should not be left out, particularly if they are loose or are not in childproof containers. Dental floss can be swallowed or can strangle a small kitten. Glass thermometers can be broken resulting in cuts or ingestion of mercury.

THE BEDROOM

Keep ear plugs in drawers and always put jewelry away. Most cats won't ever eat these items, but small kittens can and do. They often swallow tiny earrings and may strangle in chains.

Mothballs are made of highly toxic naphthalene which offgasses in hazardous quantities. Protect clothing from moths by washing and drying thoroughly and then packing in airtight containers with cedar chips or cedar oil instead.

HOBBY ROOMS AND HOME OFFICES

Keep small stuff like love rubber bands, paper clips, ink cartridges, pen nibs, and thumb tacks in closed drawers. Electrical cords can be fatal if chewed, and long phone cords can strangle. Tabasco sauce, or some cayenne pepper mixed with water into a paste, makes a great deterrent when applied to the cords.

Hobby items like super and stick glues are poisonous when ingested. Your cat only has to get them on his paws and lick them off on a regular basis to suffer long-term damage from chronic chemical exposure. Rubber cement, epoxy, typewriter correction fluid, permanent-ink, markers, and most plastic products, offgas benzene, ethanol, formaldehyde, acrylonitrile, creosol, naphthalene, phenol, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride. Look for water-soluble substitutes and metal or wood products.

A needle and thread look like fun but swallowing can cause permanent, even fatal, damage. Yarn can result in strangulation. Keep hobby items tightly boxed or in locked cabinets. If you must leave your work for a minute, put it well out of reach.

THE LIVING ROOM

Carpeting and upholstery (even that found in "kitty condos"), may contain formaldehyde, pesticides, pentachlorophenol, and other toxic chemicals. The substance responsible for "new carpet small" (4-phenylcyclohexene), causes nervous system and genetic problems. All these chemicals offgas, but most will diminish within about four years if you keep your home well-ventilated. Try 100% cotton for your kitty condos for easy laundering and flea control.

Drapery cords can be sources of strangulation. Wind up the excess and hang it on a hook out of a cat's reach. Television and stereo wires, like phone cords and computer cables should be coated with tabasco or cayenne pepper to deter chewing.

Some house plants (e.g., dieffenbachia, croton, poinsettia, philodendron, English ivy, hydrangea, holly), are toxic, but so bitter that most cats won't even nibble. The greater danger is the soil which is chemically treated. Rinse off leaves and leach the soil to remove most of the chemicals as soon as you buy a plant.

THE GARAGE AND BASEMENT

Tacks, nails, screws, industrial size staples, small nuts, and rubber washers are all "swallow-able." Anti-freeze and some insecticides like ant poison and snail bait, taste good and are poisonous. Keep all these items locked up or well out of reach. Pressed wood and particle board, paints, varnishes, adhesives, and metal degreasers contain formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. If your feline spends a lot of time around these items, keep the room well-ventilated. Sharp pointed tools should be stored in drawers or hung securely out of cat reach and power tools should be unplugged when not in use.

CAT TOYS AND PRODUCTS

Flea collars, dips, and shampoos subject cats to toxic pesticides which irritate the skin and mucous membranes. Sprays and bombs are toxic too. Get the fleas where they live — in your rugs and upholstered furniture. Use non-toxic diatom dust, baking soda, and cornstarch sprinkled heavily into your carpets and vacuumed up a week later. Do this just before and during flea season to dehydrate flea cocoons and make it impossible for them to breed.

Cat toys are usually safe, but, some have bite-sized balls, bells, or beads. Make your own toys by using an old pair of child's socks. Put one inside the other, fill with catnip, and sew it up. Your cat will not care that these toys lack eyes or bells.

HOLIDAY TRIMMINGS

Christmas is a beautiful season but it is a very dangerous one for cats. Tree ornaments can break when little paws pull them to the floor to play and the hooks can penetrate the skin, particularly inside the mouth. Electric light cords and tinsel are tempting, and ribbons, plastic berries, bells, and styrofoam balls are such open invitations to play. Before you decide to become Ebeneezer Scrooge next year, just take some time to look for ways to keep curious cats away from the tree and all the trimmings. Maybe the tree room should be off limits for a week or two or should be accessible to cats only when there is a human supervisor present.

The tree is usually the primary target for most inquisitive cats and if your cat falls into that category, keep a close and watchful eye on him or her, and if possible, keep the tree room off limits when you're not around. Some cats find the temptation to climb the tree irresistible. Tree ornaments, even styrofoam ones, are not made for safety in a cat's paws or mouth. Small beads, bits of glitter, threads, pins, and hooks can do serious harm to a cat's mouth and digestive tract. Ornaments can break when pulled to the floor and sharp fragments can cut unwitting paws. The wire hooks can penetrate the skin, particularly the mouth.

Cat playing with Christmas tree ornamentTwinkle, caught in the act "trimming" the tree.

Tinsel is tempting too and since it is mostly made from aluminum foil, it should not be ingested. Ditto for flocking which often contains fire retardant chemicals. Dangling electrical cords and gift ribbons offer opportunities for curious felines to become strangled in the course of playing. Put a little cayenne pepper in water and make a paste to apply to the chords and wires. No cat will come back for a second bite after tasting this special "secret sauce."

Holiday plants pose some problems and should be kept well out of the way of cats, particularly those extra-curious adults and inexperienced kittens. While poinsettias are often cited as being dangerous and poisonous, they do not contain the toxic and potentially fatal chemicals which are common to the rest of their species. Fortunately, most cats will not take more than a quick nibble of a plant that does not taste good and poinsettias are apparently not very flavorful. The worst your cat would probably experience after ingesting some poinsettia, is a light skin rash in and around the mouth, and possibly some minor stomach irritation. But, why subject your cat to even that much discomfort? Keep poinsettias out of reach.

Mistletoe is a very different story. This parasitic plant has berries which contain the toxic chemicals beta-phenylethylamine and tyramine. Ingestion of a few berries at the least can cause nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, delirium, convulsions, and heart failure. In larger amounts, there may also be stomach and intestinal pains, diarrhea, slowed pulse, collapse, and death — all within a few hours. In all the confusion and chaos of the holidays, your cat's discomfort may go unnoticed until it is too late. Keep mistletoe well out of reach of your cat.

Turkey bones are splintery just like chicken bones. If you serve turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving, be sure that you do not give them to your cat. Also be sure that a well-meaning guest does not feed them to Fluffy either.

SUMMARY

We live in a dangerous world and our cats share it with us. You can minimize most dangers by keeping harmful items away from your cat. With toxic chemical pollutants, avoid buying them in the first place if possible. By keeping your home environment toxin-free, you will be protecting your cat and your human family as well.

This article last updated: 12/22/2012.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.