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Antifreeze can spill from car radiators, screen wash or de-icers during winter and it poses a huge risk to your cat’s health. This guide looks at antifreeze poisoning in cats, symptoms to look out for and prevention tips to keep your cat safe.

Will cats try to drink antifreeze?

Ethylene glycol is a colourless, odourless and sweet-tasting main component of antifreeze. Although cats do not taste sweetness like we do, they can still be tempted to drink it. Since ethylene glycol is widely used in our households, there is a higher chance that a leak could happen, and your cat will try to taste it. If there is a spillage, a cat might walk through and a quick groom of paw or fur with a tiny bit of antifreeze can poison them. 

What does antifreeze do to cats?

Even ingesting the smallest amount of antifreeze can be fatal to your cat. Once consumed, ethylene glycol gets rapidly absorbed into the body and will start to cause severe damage to the kidneys, nervous system and other vital organs. It’s crucial that your cat receives urgent medical attention if there is a chance they consumed antifreeze and are showing signs of poisoning. 

Signs that a cat has antifreeze poisoning and timeline

Within 30 minutes to 12 hours after ingestion, your cat could show signs such as:

  • drooling saliva, looking depressed, vomiting
  • unwilling to eat
  • appearing 'wobbly' or uncoordinated
  • thirst

If they don’t receive urgent medical attention within the first 12 hours, your cat could develop signs of worsening kidney disease (symptoms including stopping eating, lethargy and seizures)

If 24 hours have passed, their kidneys will fail and stop producing urine and there is a risk of death. 

Because antifreeze poisoning affects cats quickly, it’s important to take them to the vet immediately after a suspected ingestion. If you can see some antifreeze on their paws or fur, wash it off straight away to minimise re-exposure before travelling to the vet. 

Diagnosing antifreeze poisoning in cats

When you take your cat to the vet for suspected antifreeze poisoning, they will need to be treated as soon as possible. Your cat’s medical symptoms might be similar to other conditions and therefore your vet will test their blood and urine to try to confirm the diagnosis. 

If possible, you should also bring the container or a label of antifreeze product your cat has come into contact with as it will be helpful for the vets to know what exactly has been ingested.

How is antifreeze poisoning treated in cats?

Antifreeze poisoning requires prompt and specific treatment from your vet to improve the chances of recovery. Treatment will depend on how long it’s been since the exposure. 

Once ingested, ethylene glycol is rapidly absorbed, but your vet may attempt to induce vomiting to help remove toxins from your cat’s stomach. Further treatment involves antidote medication and placing them on intravenous (IV) fluids. Your cat will most likely stay at the vet for a few days depending on the severity of damage the poisoning caused. 

Can cats recover from antifreeze poisoning?

This will depend on how much antifreeze was ingested, how quickly treatment was started, the cat’s response to treatment and how much damage was done to their kidneys and other organs. The treatment for antifreeze poisoning is also not without risks. 

Cats have the best chance of recovery where treatment is started within eight hours of exposure, and before there is evidence of kidney disease on blood tests. After being treated, cats that survive unfortunately may be left with long-term kidney disease.

Preventing antifreeze poisoning in cats

Although it may not be completely possible to protect your cat when they go outdoors, making sure you and your family use antifreeze safely is very important to help protect your pets. By following these tips, you can help protect your cat and pets that belong to someone else.

Tips for keeping pets safe around antifreeze:

  • watch for leaks in your car and keep pets away from the area where antifreeze is stored
  • be careful not to spill antifreeze when using it and make sure you clean up carefully if you do. A cat may walk through it and then lick it off their paws. If you see your cat stepping on it, gently clean their paws and contact your vet
  • if you drain your antifreeze, do not leave it in an open container because animals will be attracted to it
  • dispose of the waste properly and keep empty and full antifreeze containers away from animals. For safe disposal, contact your local council for advice

Pet-safe ways to defrost your car

Instead of using antifreeze containing a highly toxic chemical ethylene glycol, you could try opting for alternative ways to defrost your car that are also pet-safe. Try the following:

  • use a windscreen cover the night before
  • manually scrape off ice with an ice scraper or a soft bristle brush
  • mix household products such as water, vinegar or rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle to apply them to your car windows
  • look for biodegradable antifreeze that is made from natural and organic compounds
  • switch to a propylene glycol-based antifreeze, although this type of antifreeze is not completely non-toxic, it is much safer to keep around pets and animals
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