What is Botulism?
Botulism is a toxin caused by bacteria that can cause severe paralysis, which can be fatal. If botulism is suspected, your cat should be taken to a veterinarian immediately.
Botulism is a serious type of food poisoning caused by bacteria that grows as food items like meat or vegetation decompose. It affects those that ingest it by creating a powerful toxin that causes damage to multiple systems in the body. It is considered an intoxication instead of an infection because the bacteria do not have to infect the host to cause serious symptoms, but rather are ingested. Botulism can affect multiple species, including people, companion animals like cats, farm animals, and wild animals. It is not contagious, but can sicken multiple animals if they all ate the same tainted food. Cats are not as likely as other animals to contract botulism because they are pickier eaters and tend to be fairly resistant to the disease.
Symptoms of Botulism in Cats
Signs of Botulism in your cat will usually begin within a few hours of eating infected food and can last several days or weeks. The most serious and obvious symptom is paralysis, which starts as weakness in the hindquarters before becoming more severe and spreading. Respiratory or cardiac paralysis can occur in severe cases, resulting in death.
- Lack of appetite
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Inability to urinate
- Unresponsive reflexes of the tendons, throat, and eyes
- Mild to moderate paralysis (particularly in the hind limbs)
- Spreading paralysis
- Difficulty breathing
- Cardiac arrest
Causes of Botulism in Cats
Botulism is a type of food poisoning caused by bacteria. It occurs when an animal ingests tainted food. Decomposing carrion, garbage, spoiled food, compost, and moldy items can be sources of the bacteria. The most common cause of botulism in cats is ingesting a found carcass, raw meat from inside the home, or items from the trash. Symptoms are caused by the endotoxin produced by the bacteria. The toxin has a negative impact on multiple body systems.
Diagnosis of Botulism in Cats
Botulism can be difficult for a veterinarian to diagnose, as other bacteria or causes can result in similar symptoms. Paralysis is the most common symptom of the disease, so it should be suspected in pets with this or related symptoms. It is also hard to properly test for as the bacteria may not be present in fluids or tissues. Stomach or intestinal contents as well as fecal matter or urine can be tested, but results still might be unreliable in identifying if botulism is the cause of your cat’s paralysis.
The most common way to diagnose botulism in cats is by ruling out other likely causes of paralysis. Your veterinarian will want to discuss your cat’s eating habits. Be prepared to provide them details on whether your pet eats canned foods, shares table scraps, gets into the trash, or is likely to have eaten something it found outdoors. They may also have questions about the onset of symptoms and your cat’s medical history. A physical examination will be performed, and X-rays or other imaging might be needed to determine if the lungs are affected, as respiratory paralysis is often the cause of fatalities in animals with botulism.
Treatment of Botulism in Cats
If botulism is suspected, an antitoxin can be administered to try to stop the effects. The earlier the antitoxin is provided, the greater the chances of successful recovery, so it is important that your pet is seen by a veterinarian immediately. Other treatments associated with botulism are geared towards providing supportive care while your cat overcomes the symptoms and the toxin passes through their system. Hospitalization is generally required to support your cat’s recovery. Treatments used in conjunction with the antitoxin can include:
- Intravenous (IV) Fluids: Dehydration is a risk associated with botulism because it can cause vomiting and make it difficult for your cat to eat or drink. IV fluids will help keep your pet hydrated so they can fight the toxin.
- Oxygen Therapy: In pets that are experiencing respiratory distress, oxygen therapy is essential to keep them breathing and their blood oxygen at a healthy level. Tubing, masks, or oxygen cages may be used to support your pet’s breathing.
- Feeding Tubes: If your pet is unable to chew or swallow or is unwilling to eat, a feeding tube may be used to provide essential nutrients and calories for your pet. This is a routine procedure but is not often used unless symptoms are severe.
- Catheters: As with the feeding tubes, a catheter may be used if your pet is unable to urinate on their own.
Recovery of Botulism in Cats
Botulism in cats can be life threatening, but if treatment is begun early enough most pets will make a full recovery. This can occur in as little as ten days from the onset of symptoms, but may take several weeks. During this time it is important your pet receives the supportive care they need. Hospitalization will be required until paralysis has passed and your pet is able to eat, drink, pass urine, and have bowel movements without aid. Once at home, continue to support your pet as needed with these activities. Carefully monitor their food and water intake to ensure they are getting the nutrition they need. Your pet may continue to be lethargic or have trouble with movements for some time, so you should try to limit their activity levels.
To prevent future infections, be sure that source material has been removed and made inaccessible to your cat. If you’re not sure where your pet may have ingested the toxin, check areas they have access to. Remove any carcasses and old food. Restrict your pet’s access to the trash indoors and outdoors. Never feed your pet raw or undercooked meats, as this is a common source of botulism in cats.