Many cats are picky eaters, so they’re less likely than dogs to be attracted to certain human foods. Nevertheless, it’s important to be aware that some foods can be dangerous to cats.
Raw bread dough made with live yeast can be hazardous to cats. When a cat swallows raw dough, the warm, moist environment of the stomach provides an ideal environment for the yeast to multiply, resulting in an expanding mass of dough in the stomach. Expansion of the stomach can be severe enough to decrease blood flow to the stomach wall and affect breathing. Also, as the yeast metabolizes the sugar in the dough, alcohol is produced. The alcohol can be absorbed, resulting in alcohol intoxication. Affected cats can have distended abdomens and show signs such as drunkenness, disorientation and vomiting (or attempts to vomit). In extreme cases, coma, seizures or even death from alcohol intoxication might occur. Cats who have abdominal distention or seem drunk should be monitored by a veterinarian until they recover. All rising yeast dough should be kept out of reach of cats.
Most cats don’t have a sweet tooth. However, some will eat foods containing chocolate, such as chocolate candy, cookies, brownies and chocolate baked goods. These and other chocolate-flavored treats can cause chocolate intoxication in cats. The compounds in chocolate that are toxic are caffeine and theobromine, which belong to a group of chemicals called methylxanthines. These compounds cause stimulation of the heart and nervous system. The rule of thumb with chocolate is “the darker it is, the more dangerous it is.” White chocolate has very few methylxanthines and is of low toxicity. Dark baker’s chocolate, on the other hand, has high levels of methylxanthines. Plain, dry unsweetened cocoa powder contains the most concentrated levels of methylxanthines. Depending on the type and amount of chocolate a cat eats, the signs can range from vomiting, increased thirst, abdominal discomfort and restlessness to severe agitation, muscle tremors, irregular heart rhythm, high body temperature, seizures and even death. Cats showing more than mild restlessness should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol and drinking alcohol, can be very dangerous for cats. Due to their small size, cats are far more sensitive to ethanol than humans are. Even drinking a small amount of a product containing alcohol can cause significant intoxication. Cats are often attracted to mixed drinks that contain milk, cream or ice cream (e.g., White Russians, alcoholic egg nog and Brandy Alexanders). Alcohol intoxication commonly causes vomiting, loss of coordination, disorientation and stupor. In severe cases, coma, seizures and death can occur. Cats who are intoxicated should be monitored by a veterinarian until they recover.
A wide variety of molds grow on food. Some molds produce toxins called tremorgenic mycotoxins, which can cause serious or even life-threatening problems if eaten. Cats tend to be finicky, but they can eat molds that grow on dairy products, like cheese and cream cheese. The signs of tremorgenic mycotoxin poisoning generally begin as fine muscle tremors that progress to whole-body tremors and, finally, convulsions that can lead to death in severe cases. Left untreated, these tremors can last for several weeks. Fortunately, they usually respond well to appropriate veterinary treatment.
Onions and Garlic
All members of the onion family (shallots, onions, garlic, scallions, etc.) contain compounds that can damage cats’ red blood cells if eaten in sufficient quantities. Garlic tends to be more toxic than onions on an ounce-for-ounce basis, and cooking does not destroy the toxin. While it’s uncommon for cats to eat enough raw onions and garlic to cause serious problems, exposure to concentrated forms of onion or garlic, such as dehydrated onions, onion soup mix or garlic powder, can put cats at risk of toxicosis (poisoning). For example, some sick cats who are fed baby food containing onion powder develop anemia. The damage to red blood cells caused by onions and garlic generally doesn’t become apparent until three to five days after ingestion. Affected cats might seem weak or reluctant to move, or they might have pale gums. Their urine can be orange-tinged to dark red. Cats with any of these symptoms should be examined by a veterinarian immediately. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be necessary.