Cats of all ages like to explore and play by chewing, but sometimes they consume things that are harmful to them. Find out about the foods and household items that pose a threat to your cat’s wellbeing, from fish bones to antifreeze.
You might assume that kittens are more likely than adult cats to get themselves into mischief and eat something bad for them. But, in reality, cats of any age are at risk of eating poisonous foods and dangerous household substances.
Why do cats eat harmful substances?
There are many reasons why a cat will be tempted to eat something toxic. In order to keep your pet safe, you need to keep risky foodstuffs and dangerous household items well out of your cat’s reach. Eliminating or managing the following risk factors will be part of keeping your cat safe and healthy:
The idiom ‘curiosity killed the cat’ has its basis in truth. Cats are inquisitive by nature and can sniff, lick and eat things that they should not. Before cats were domesticated, they had to constantly assess their environment in the wild to keep themselves safe. As a result, domestic cats now seek out new spaces like sheds and cupboards where they can stumble across chemicals and foods that could be harmful for them.
If your cat is not getting enough food at home, or if you’ve changed their food and they’re refusing to eat it, they could go in search of more food. Being hungry could lead them to eat foods that they aren’t usually interested in, like fruits or vegetables that they can’t digest.
Cats naturally hunt prey and their instincts mean they are constantly on the search for their next snack. This can lead them to catch birds and rodents, as well as eat meat and bones from bins. In particular, cats that have previously been stray cats might still have their scavenging habits and could overeat because they’re not confident about where their next meal is coming from.
Lack of time in nature
Cats have a natural instinct to chew grass and leaves, which ordinarily will not harm them. Yet this could still cause a problem if grass or leaves outside have been treated with fertilisers or pesticides. If your cat is an indoor cat, they may not have access to gardens and parks to relieve this chewing instinct. In this instance, they may resort to eating your houseplants, which could be toxic to them.
Tooth and gum problems
Sometimes cats want to soothe their dental problems by chewing on household items. These can be ‘safe’ items, such as fabric or leather, which is annoying for you, but not harmful for cats as long as they don’t swallow anything. If your cat chews on electrical cables or bottles with chemicals inside, there is more risk to their safety. You could try investing in some chew toys if your cat seems to have a strong urge to chew.
What kinds of foods should cats not eat?
Knowing what human foods are risky for your cat’s health is an important step in keeping them out of your cat’s way. Be vigilant if the following foods and drinks are present when your cat is sniffing around, especially if they’re curious, playful and always eating things they shouldn’t.
While you’d never intentionally give your cat alcohol, cats may enjoy drinking sweet or creamy things. So, a cocktail or something like a cream-based liqueur left in a glass next to the sofa is ideally placed for your nosy cat to take a few sips. Even a tiny amount of alcohol, as little as a tablespoon, could cause your cat to become unconscious, affect their liver and kidneys, and impact their brain.
Onions and garlic
You might not expect a cat to want to eat onion or garlic, but you can’t underestimate the instinct of a nosy, hungry cat. If there are onions or garlic left over on a pizza covered with cheese or meat, this could be very tempting to a cat’s taste buds. Eating raw or cooked onions or garlic could cause bloating, gases and digestive issues for your cat.
Milk and dairy products
Like most adult mammals, cats should not consume milk. Cows’ milk or specific lactose-free ‘cat milk’ holds no nutritional value for cats. Your cat may want to drink milk, but it’s likely they are craving the cream as a high-fat, calorie-rich treat, not the milk itself. As cats are lactose intolerant, feeding them milk could give them severe stomach and digestive problems.
Cats often enjoy sweet, creamy foods, and chocolate is both. Unfortunately, chocolate is highly toxic for cats. There is a naturally occurring substance in cocoa called theobromine and it’s very harmful to cats. After eating chocolate, your cat could experience serious kidney and heart problems.
Grapes and raisins
Grapes and raisins are not a common food item you would associate with cats. We’ve included them on this list, however, because of the extreme danger they present rather than because your cat might want to eat them. Even a small piece of grape, or a raisin in leftover cereal, could have fast and serious health implications for your cat. From kidney failure to digestive distress, your cat could become seriously ill.
Raw eggs, raw meat and bones
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they get their nutrients from meat. It’s why they hunt prey in the garden and devour meat-rich cat foods. So, you might think it’s safe for your cat to eat raw meat and eggs, since these foods replicate the diet your cat would eat in the wild.
The problem is that the raw meat and eggs from your fridge have been processed. The animals have not been instantly killed and consumed; instead, there has been an opportunity for salmonella or E. coli to develop. If your cat ate foods affected by this bacteria, they could become dangerously ill with severe digestive problems and fatigue.
Cats often want to chew chicken bones, fish bones or lamb bones because they taste of meat. While this may appear to be harmless, the danger comes when the bones splinter under the pressure of your cat’s jaws. These shards of bones can pierce the gums, tongue and throat of your cat, which can be painful and dangerous.
What harmful household items have cats been known to eat?
String or wool
Cats like to play with balls of wool, string and other long trailing ropes for entertainment. This is safe to do, but if the cat goes on to chew this material and then accidentally ingest some, it can be incredibly risky. String becomes what's called a ‘linear foreign body’ if it's swallowed. When the long string gets into the intestines, which are coiled up and full of bends, the string can cause obstructions and knots, and can slice through the soft tissue of the gut.
Plastic or rubber items
A baby's pacifier, the teats of bottles, and anything soft and rubbery, are satisfying for cats to chew on. It’s easy for pieces to break off plastic and rubber items and become lodged in your cat’s throat or gut.
Glues and adhesives
Anything in tubes is attractive for cats to chew on, but glues and adhesives are especially dangerous. Should your cat perforate the packaging, the glue could leak into your cat’s mouth. The sensitive skin in their mouth and throat could be chemically burned, their lips and gums could be physically stuck together, and the chemicals in the glue are highly toxic to your cat’s kidneys and liver.
Aspirin, ibuprofen, paracetamol and medicines
Any medicines meant for humans are very harmful to cats. Not only because cats are significantly smaller than humans, meaning even the littlest amount is a significant overdose, but because cats do not have the enzyme in their liver to break the chemicals down.
Lilies are very common household plants and are extremely dangerous to cats. Part of the reason why they are so dangerous is because every part of the plant causes harm. The stamens of the flowers, where the dusty pollen is, are highly toxic, as are the petals and the leaves. Should your cat chomp on any part of the plant, they are at risk of significant and severe liver and kidney damage. Lilies are especially risky for house cats that crave being able to chew on plants.
While your cat isn’t likely to swallow a whole electrical cable, they are at risk of electrocution. Cats enjoy chewing on rubbery textures and their sharp teeth could pierce through and connect to the metal wires.
Antifreeze and slug killer
Some chemicals, such as antifreeze, smell and taste sweet to cats. As a result, cats can seek out the substances without understanding they’re risking poisoning and death. It’s essential that chemicals are kept out of reach of cats. So, if you’re planning on sprinkling slug pellets in your garden, or filling up your car with antifreeze, keep your cat inside.
In this short video, Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner highlights some common household items that may be a threat to your cat.
What should you do if you think your cat has eaten something harmful?
If your cat is suddenly lethargic, vomiting, experiencing diarrhoea or is in seizure, immediately take them to the vet. Call ahead and, if you can, take with you to the vet the poisonous item you suspect your cat has ingested.
If your cat has no symptoms, but you fear they have eaten or drunk something harmful, call the vet and explain your concerns. Your vet will then be able to advise you.