My expressionless, phlegmatic stare toward the back of the room must have become obvious to the veterinarian at the animal hospital. She subtly nodded to her assistant on the right who extended a tissue box in my direction. I had a feeling this wasn’t the first time they had this conversation with a patient.
“In situations with lily poisoning, once we start to see abnormalities in the cat’s kidney levels, oftentimes the most humane option is euthanasia,” she explained to me in a soft, tentative voice. “The alternative would be to keep him here for 72 hours on fluids to see if we can flush out the poison. But to be fully transparent, even if he lives, we are talking about a dramatically reduced quality of life. Overall, his chances aren’t good.”
I tried to recall how I got to this sterile, fluorescent-lit room in the first place. No more than 45 minutes earlier, I was sprawled on my bed while I cuddled with my five-year-old black-and-white longhair cat, Jeeves, on the bed. His kneading and purring kicked off a common post-work ritual for the two of us, one we had been doing consistently since I adopted him four years ago. He’d shower me with affection, I’d give him a treat or extra dollop of wet food, and then he’d proceed to inspect every square-inch of the apartment—you know, because things definitely changed since yesterday.
But this time, however, there definitely was something new and exciting to inspect—a bushy, pungent bouquet of Easter lilies, roses and hydrangeas perched prettily on my nightstand. It was a thoughtful gift from a boy I had been on a handful of dates with, and Jeeves took as much pleasure in inhaling their scent as I did. I have always been especially enamored with lilies—I even have the flower tattooed on my body. Aside from their obvious beauty, I loved how much longer it took for them to bloom than other flowers in a bouquet. And when they did, they outlasted every other rose or tulip in the bunch.
However, when Jeeves went in for a long whiff of the all-white lily and emerged with mustard pollen smeared on his face that afternoon, something just didn’t look right. It wasn’t that he was sneezing or in visible pain, but the way he looked at me made me feel uneasy, almost like he knew the powdery substance shouldn’t be on him. And after Googling ‘lilies and cats’ on my phone—only to find out how poisonous they were—I scrambled to move Jeeves into his carrier and into a yellow cab to Midtown straight away.
"I’m just gonna go outside for a sec,” I responded back in the vet's office. They both nodded caringly, understanding that opting to kill your cat on the spot, as opposed to trying to defy the odds and hand over your emergency savings, wasn’t a decision you could make in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t until a friend of mine showed up to the hospital who, unlike me, was wearing a horrified, somber expression on her face and ran into my arms to hug me the second she spotted me, did the reality start to sink in—and the tears start to flow.
This is all my fault. I killed him. I killed my cat.
THE SELDOM DISCUSSED CAT-KILLER
After 72 hours of intravenous therapy, Jeeves made a full recovery from the lily poisoning. Although the vet explained that each case is different (including how much of the plant the cat ingests and how long it has been in their system), they believed the continuous flushing of his system via the I.V. helped clear the kidneys of poison.
Despite the good prognosis, the guilt I felt remained heavy. But after talking with several cat-owning friends, a different tale started to emerge. Not one of those friends I spoke with knew that lilies were poisonous, including ones who have been caring for felines for decades. I posted my story to social media and received a slew of horrified responses in the comment section. To top it all off, the boy who bought me the bouquet with lilies in the first place owns a cat named Lily, which was, shockingly, the name the ASPCA gave her when he adopted.
The ASPCA does spotlight feline toxins on their website, with plants (not just lilies) accounting for 5.2 percent of all cases of poisoning. “The ASPCA encourages animal adopters to understand the toxicity of plants before putting them in or around your house,” one of their representatives said in an email interview in regards to initial adoption procedures. The small mom and pop organization I adopted Jeeves from, however, gave me no information on plant toxicity or poisons related to cats, and whoever named the cat Lily at the local ASPCA certainly didn't know.
WHY ARE THE FLOWER SHOPS SO SILENT?
A perfect fit for our dorm-sized apartments, cats are often as much associated with New York City as the flower-selling bodega shops that line nearly every street corner. Not once, however, have I seen any kind of warning or sign posted at these places highlighting their toxicity. Maybe not surprising since they are small shops, but for large-scale corporation like ProFlowers.com or 1-800-FLOWERS, outlining a potentially poisonous flower to buyers would seem like a no-brainer from a legal perspective, and pet owners would be grateful, too.
Despite a single post on 199 poisonous plants wedged into ProFlowers' blog, there are no other instances on either site that I could find that discuss toxicity associated with particular plants. And felines aside, dogs (and humans) are susceptible to flower poisoning, too. Since the big sellers aren’t highlighting it, should we be expected to have an encyclopedia-like knowledge of all these flowers before bringing them into our homes?
“The floral industry really frustrates me,” explained Dr. Andrea Trafny, a staff doctor at NYC’s Animal Medical Center - Emergency and Critical Care Service (AMC), where Jeeves was treated. “Upon purchase, more often than not, buyers aren’t being made aware of a flower’s potential toxicity—especially in regard to pets. Naturally, part of this is because not all plants called lilies are toxic, and unfortunately, most just assume all are benign.” The Peruvian lily, for example, does not cause kidney injury to cats. Easter lilies (what Jeeves was exposed to) and tiger lilies, however, are some of the most toxic. Stargazer and day lilies are also poisonous.
According to Trafny, AMC sees roughly one case of lily poisoning per day. Of course, this is a single animal hospital in a city with over 8.5 million inhabitants and 30+ veterinarians in the five boroughs. If each of those 30 vets see the same kind of traffic from lily exposure that the AMC does, some 6,450 cats could have been affected per year. And that’s just for the cat owners with means to take their sick cat to the vet immediately—and to shell out nearly $4,000 in hospital bills to treat them.
Trafny explained to me that the AMC does their best to spread the word about lily toxicity in felines, including distributing pamphlets to owners and outlining poisons clearly on their website. Of course, once a cat owner comes to Trafny after their feline has been exposed to lilies, the time for preventative measures has probably passed.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO KEEP YOUR CAT SAFE
As Trafny told me, my speed in getting Jeeves into the hospital likely saved his life. And while you’d think that actually gnawing on a petal or leaf would be the ultimate hazard, as Trafny explains, the real poison is in the pollen. "If you see pollen on the whiskers, wipe it away as much as you can, on the way to the vet. she says. “Even if a cat rubs up against a lily, they become contaminated and can cause renal and kidney failure,” she explained. “Unfortunately, when the kidneys are injured, they don’t regenerate. You just have to hope that the damage isn’t too bad. Past a certain point, total kidney failure is certain.”
While removing lilies from the home is the only surefire way to prevent exposure, decontamination can be helpful in the immediate hours following contact, including induced vomiting and a charcoal rub to absorb the toxin (executed by the vet). If those measures don’t work, full-on kidney dialysis is required, but that’s only if the owner is willing to pay upwards of $10,000. Although seeing your cat come into contact with a lily is a surefire sign of exposure, Trafny lists other initial symptoms of poisoning, including increased thirst and urination in the beginning stages and vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy and decreased appetite in the later stages. In the final stage, the cat will go into renal failure and will stop producing urine.
WATCH FOR OTHER POTENTIAL FELINE DANGERS
As for making a cat-safe home, Trafny recommends accounting for their curious nature. “Set up a space where where you can confine them when you’re not home,” she stresses. “You can’t hide things from cats, especially pungent, interesting things like flowers that will intrigue them. Keep them out of the bathroom, even when you are home. Human pills like antidepressants and cleaning supplies are poisonous, while dental floss could cause gastrointestinal obstruction. It’s the most dangerous room for felines in the house.”
In addition to those dangers Trafny mentions, other common household hazards for indoor cats include human medicines, various foods and beverages (alcohol, caffeine, chocolate), other types of plants (marijuana, mistletoe, poinsettia, tulips) and insecticides and chemicals (detergents, rodent bait and antifreeze). Most surprisingly, onions are also poisonous to cats. They're also a close relative of lilies.
In my post-lily exposure life with Jeeves, however, I continue to be angry: particularly with the floral industry for refusing to spotlight the dangers of lily toxicity, and at myself for exposing my innocent pet to something that nearly killed him. What I can do (and you can do, too), however, is to share the information with other pet owners and florists. Tell your friends about lily toxicity in cats. If you're a real pet activist, you can download these awareness campaign posters and offer them to your local shops, or tape them to street lights and message boards around your town. You can also find other ways to get involved on the International Cat Care website.
This article first appeard on Rodale's Organic Life.