Visiting Vet: Season of lilies

Keep the lilies away from cats.

Lillies are toxic to cats, but not dogs. —Thomas Williams

Last weekend, many of us celebrated either Easter or the beginning of Passover. “Of course they happen at the same time!” you might say. “After all, wasn’t the Last Supper a Passover Seder?” The answer to that question is for religious scholars, not me. What I can tell you for sure is that, although always observed in springtime, the two holidays do not invariably coincide as closely as this year. Here’s why. The Jewish calendar is based on the moon’s orbit around the Earth, while the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII), used to determine Christian holidays, is based on Earth’s orbit around the sun. This lunar calendar year has fewer days than the solar, so an extra “leap” month is periodically added to the Jewish cycle to keep all the other months in sync with the seasons. This is particularly important because many Jewish holidays are deeply rooted in seasonal events such as the first barley harvest or ripening of fruits.

Passover always begins on the 15th of the month Nissan. This used to pose a dilemma for those celebrating Easter, because of the tenet that the resurrection occurred on a Sunday. If the church established the date based on the lunar calendar, Easter would not always fall on a Sunday. After much deliberation, in 325 C.E. the First Council of Nicaea decided Easter should always be observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon, following the spring equinox. Thus the date may vary, but not the day of the week. Then there’s the whole complication of the Eastern (Orthodox) Church, which uses the Julian calendar, resulting in Orthodox Easter sometimes being on a different Sunday, but this is a veterinary column, not a course in comparative religion.

Oh. Right. This is a veterinary column. I was thinking about Easter. It’s probably too late to ask you not to give baby bunnies or chicks as gifts to children … but I think most Islanders know this. We are lucky to live in a community where animal welfare is a value most of us hold in common. But it’s not too late to talk about another spring peril: Lilies. Whether on your table in a cut floral arrangement or in a pot, or planted in your yard, many species of lilies are highly toxic to cats. No worries about the dog. Other than getting a tummy ache if he eats the Easter lily, Fido is not at risk. But for Flora, the feline, ingestion of lilies can result in acute kidney failure. The flowers are the most toxic portion, but all parts of the plant are extremely dangerous to cats, including leaves, blossoms, pollen, or even water from the vase. It doesn’t take much. Playfully biting the leaves. Rubbing up against the bloom and getting pollen on fur or whiskers, then grooming it off. Even such minor exposures can be deadly.

We do not yet know exactly what the toxic substance is, but we do know lily exposure is a medical emergency. If you see your cat chew on a lily, even a dusting of pollen, contact your veterinarian immediately. If we see Flora soon enough, your veterinarian may be able to induce vomiting (though this is particularly hard in cats, who seem to love to throw up on the rugs at home, but not at the veterinarian’s office). In any case, she will require round-the-clock intravenous fluid therapy for at least two days, and careful monitoring of her kidney function. “He seems fine,” you say. Wrong. Although occasionally death may occur within a few hours of ingestion, most cats seem relatively fine … until they are not. Then it’s too late. Flora may show no visible symptoms right after snacking on lilies, or she may drool, vomit, and seem lethargic. These signs may then resolve temporarily, leading owners to believe the danger has passed, but then return as the kidneys start to fail. This can occur anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after exposure. Symptoms may include depression, incoordination, tremors, crying, inability to stand, excessive drinking and urination, and sometimes seizures.

Waiting as little as one day after ingestion to seek treatment can seal Flora’s fate. One study reported that left untreated, 50 to 100 percent of cats died. A more recent report indicated that with early intervention followed by aggressive fluid therapy, almost all animals will survive. Thus our goal must be to treat Flora while she still looks fine in order to prevent kidney failure … as once the kidney damage occurs, it is irreversible.

So are all lilies toxic? The Liliaceae family contains more than 160 genera, but the ones we are concerned about are just the genera Lilium (true lilies) and Hemerocallis (daylilies). This includes Easter, Asiatic, stargazer, day, tiger, and wood lilies. Many of these are often in arrangements from florists, so be vigilant. Please discard any lilies before bringing such a bouquet into a home with kitties. Cats seem to be attracted to lilies, so just thinking you have put them out of reach is not enough, as Flora may go to acrobatic lengths to investigate them. There are also flowers commonly called “lilies” that technically are not. Some of these are also toxic, like lily of the valley, which contains cardiotoxins. Some are not, like calla and peace lilies, which may cause oral and gastrointestinal irritation, but not life-threatening issues.

Not sure what kind of flower you have? Ask a florist or consult your local garden center. Remember most veterinarians are not botanists. We help look things up if you bring a plant sample, but if you have a definitive identification for us, that’s extremely helpful.

I am a lover of old adages, and here’s a pertinent one. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you even suspect Flora has been exposed, call your veterinarian. Even better, if you have cats, eschew lilies on your table or in your garden. Roses are lovely. And nontoxic.