Burrs and Paint

Sometimes cats are too curious for their own good.

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Never try to remove paint from your cat with paint thinner, paint remover, or turpentine. — Erika Puñales

My little veterinary practice is definitely “old school” — a few rooms attached directly to my home. So at night I can hear if the office phone rings after hours — a truncated jingle before the call automatically forwards to my answering service. The sound always makes my blood pressure go up. I glance at the clock and remind myself it doesn’t necessarily mean an emergency awaits. Sometimes people are simply leaving messages for the next day, or have dialed the wrong number. I mentally set a time limit. 10 minutes. If the answering service hasn’t texted me an urgent message within that window, I exhale and relax.

So the other night, settling down in my jammies watching the vice presidential debate (which also raised my blood pressure), I heard that brief chime emanate from the business side of my house. I started my countdown, hoping it was a wrong number. Five minutes later, my cell phone announced an incoming text. Hoping it was just Sharky’s announcing a special on chicken wings, I grabbed my phone. Drat. Not Sharky’s. I scrolled down the screen. My service always sends along the owner’s name, phone number, name of pet, and finally, the nature of the problem. Ah! It was a regular client with her recently adopted cat, a sweet, petite, long-haired kitty named Bertha. And what was Bertha’s problem? The text succinctly shouted in all caps — “BURRS AROUND BOTTOM.”

Now I have a long-haired cat myself, Captain Jack Sparrow. And we have burdock in our woods. So I know about burrs in the fur, but I wasn’t clear why this was an emergency. The client was an experienced and capable cat owner. The answering service must have misunderstood. I picked up the phone and called Bertha’s mom. No, the answering service hadn’t misunderstood. Bertha had a bottom full of burrs. “OK,” I said. “Do you have a flea comb? And someone there to help you?” One person could hold the cat gently by the scruff, I explained, while the other used the comb to gently tease out the burrs. But Bertha’s mom was adamant. She needed my assistance. “OK,” I said again. “Give me five minutes to get dressed.”

When Bertha arrived, it was obvious why the owner couldn’t simply comb out those burrs. Starting with the underside of her fluffy tail, then down the perianal and vulvar regions, extending across her groin, tummy and inner thighs, Bertha’s fur was completely matted with spiky burrs, interwoven so densely they adhered tight against the skin like velcro. And the whole mess was soaked with urine. Poor Bertha. That’s gotta hurt. I spent less than five seconds with a comb before giving up and moving directly to clippers.

Shaving the nether regions on a kitty requires a certain amount of finesse. It’s easy to nick delicate folds or cause “clipper burn” on fragile skin. But Bertha was a trooper. With her owner comforting and gently restraining her, we gradually shaved away the masses of burrs and tangled fur, then sifted out final bits with the comb. Burrs are usually just an annoyance, but if Bertha were to try to remove them by grooming herself, tiny fragments of irritating spiky plant might lodge in her mouth, tongue, throat, or esophagus. In dogs there is actually a syndrome called “burr tongue” (technically named pyogranulomatous glossitis.) When the dog licks at the burrs, multiple splinter-like bits of plant material can embed in the tongue, resulting in blister-like lesions and serious inflammation all over the tongue surface. Burr tongue can also be caused by licking carpets or anything else that may shed small fibers.

“Keep Bertha inside tonight, and check your yard for burdock tomorrow,” I advised, then added, “at least it was just burrs, not something more dangerous.” You all know about curiosity and cats. Over the years I have cleaned up kitties who had gotten into paint, tar, motor oil, pine sap, candle wax, household cleaners, gasoline, and glue. Some of these can cause chemical burns on the skin. Others can be absorbed through the skin, leading to toxicity. And others can be toxic when Curious Cat grooms himself and ingests the stuff.

Plain old latex paint can be washed off (if it’s still wet) using mild soap and water. So can things like motor oil. (I use Dawn dishwashing soap.) You don’t have to worry about lead in house paint any more, but it may still be present in certain decorative paints. Check the label on the paint tube should Curious get his paws into your home art project. Also keep in mind that nowadays kitchen and bathroom paint may contain additives that prevent mold growth. These products have the potential to cause kidney failure if Curious ingests them. Do NOT try to remove paint from your cat with paint thinner, paint remover, or turpentine. These can cause serious chemical burns. Dried paint? Soften it by rubbing in some baby oil or vegetable oil before bathing. This can work on tar, too.

Small amounts of dried paint, pine sap, even tar, are probably safe to let gradually flake off, but keep an eye on Curious, as he may get an upset tummy if he ingests much. I prefer to shave off the affected fur, if possible. Please don’t try to do this at home with scissors. You are as likely to inadvertently cut your cat as you are to effectively remove the offending material. Then we have to clean him up and suture him up.

When in doubt, always try to identify exactly what Curious got into. Then call your veterinarian. Even if it’s after hours. We’d rather talk to you in the evening about what to do than face a more serious situation in the morning as a result of delaying treatment. When Bertha left, I went back to watching the debate until, finding it more irritating than a bottom full of burrs, I turned off the television and went to bed.