Lilies are a common and festive flower to have in the home this time of year. But UC Davis veterinarians warn of their lethal consequences for cats.
“Most cat owners don’t know it, but lilies are lethally toxic to cats,” states Dr. Larry Cowgill, DVM, PhD, DACVIM. “In fact, they’re so poisonous that a cat can suffer fatal kidney failure just from biting into a lily leaf or petal, licking lily pollen from its paws, or drinking water from a vase with cut lilies in it.”
All members of the Lilium group produce a chemical—present in all parts of the plant—that can damage cat kidneys, but Easter lilies, Stargazer lilies, and Asiatic lilies seem to be the most hazardous. (Calla lilies and peace lilies are not of the Lilium group, so they are not fatal to cats, but still can be harmful.)
Some cats appear to be more susceptible than others to lily toxicity, and the severity of the resulting kidney failure also varies from cat to cat. Some poisoned cats recover with minimal therapy, while others require costly advanced treatments.
“Signs of lily poisoning include vomiting, lethargy or loss of appetite,” said Dr. Cowgill. “If cat owners suspect lily poisoning, they should contact their veterinarian immediately. A cat that has consumed the lily toxin very likely will experience kidney failure within 36 to 72 hours unless it receives appropriate treatment.”
That treatment, Dr. Cowgill explains, may initially consist of induced vomiting, the administration of activated charcoal to bind any toxin remaining in the stomach, and intravenous fluids to support the injured kidneys. In severe cases, a 1- to 4-week course of hemodialysis or other blood purifying therapies may be necessary to keep the cat alive until the kidney injury can repair.
Dr. Cowgill is the director of the UC Veterinary Medical Center-San Diego (UCVMC-SD), a satellite facility of the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH). Along with Dr. Sheri Ross, he leads the UCVMC-SD’s Advanced Extracorporeal (Hemodialysis) and Urinary Disease Service, and along with Dr. Carrie Palm, he leads the VMTH’s Hemodialysis and Blood Purification Unit. These facilities are two of very few veterinary clinics in California that perform hemodialysis and other renal medicine procedures.
The history of renal medicine at UC Davis goes back to 1976 when Dr. Cowgill arrived on campus following an internship, residency, and graduate training at the University of Pennsylvania, which at that time was possibly the only veterinary school other than Purdue University that was experimenting with hemodialysis procedures. Dr. Cowgill brought that knowledge to UC Davis, and over the course of the next 45 years, helped UC Davis evolve into a world leader in renal medicine.