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Cycads are an extremely old type of plant that can be found all across the globe in both temperate and tropical locales. They are often used in a decorative role in gardens, often framing borders and lining paths. However, consuming any part of the plant can prove extremely poisonous to many types of animal, including cats.
The signs of cycad poisoning are quite noticeable, giving owners a clear indication that something is wrong with their pet. However, serious complications can set in quickly, meaning that it is imperative that the cat receives medical attention as soon as possible in order to prevent extensive damage or even death.
Within minutes of consuming part of a cycad plant, the cat will begin to exhibit clear signs of nausea. This will quickly develop into an extended period of vomiting (unlike regular food poisoning, which in felines will normally be resolved quite quickly). There will usually be no noticeable discoloration of the vomit, although blood will sometimes appear. Vomiting for protracted lengths of time can be quite dangerous, as the loss of fluids can help encourage dehydration to set in.
The second most noticeable symptom of cycad poisoning is a loss of control of the bowels. Diarrhea can be substantially more dangerous than vomiting, as the sheer loss of liquid from the body in such a short space of time can often induce dehydration in many cats. The fecal material itself can be noticeably darker than usual due to bleeding in the intestinal tract.
Loss of Coordination
An affected animal will typically exhibit a dramatically increased level of lethargy, with the cat refusing to respond to attempts to interact with it. They may also start to stagger when walking and generally move with a lack of precision.
One of the most serious symptoms stemming from cycads poisoning is liver failure. This can be indicated by an increased sensitivity to being touched as well as bruising induced by normal activities. Perhaps the most noticeable sign of liver failure, however, is jaundice, with the eyes and skin taking on a yellowish hue as the liver becomes unable to filter bilirubin from the blood.
Cycads contain a phytotoxin known as 'cycasin'. Once ingested, Cycasin will start to cause damage to intercellular tissues, which in turn causes oxidants to be released into the bloodstream. In sufficient amounts, these oxidants can cause damage to liver cells, causing the organ to fail and thereby lending the affected animal the tell-tale jaundiced appearance. In serious cases, this liver failure can cause serious damage to other organs, leading to incapacitation and even death. Cycad plants also contain a chemical known as 'beta-methylamino-l-alanine' (BMAA). BMAA is a dangerous neurotoxin that by oxidizing neurons, causes them to malfunction. This interferes with the brain's ability to communicate signals via the nervous system, causing the resultant loss of coordination in an affected cat.
Whilst laboratory testing to confirm the presence of cycad toxins is available, it is not tested for often enough to show up on a regular bloodwork panel. However, given the somewhat specific signs of cycad poisoning, a vet will usually not have too much trouble narrowing down the cause of the problem. This is especially true if the owner can confirm the consumption of cycad plant materials. The vet will often have a list of questions regarding the cat's health and behavior, so owners should be mindful of the need to have some answers prepared before visiting the clinic, as this will make diagnosing the problem much easier.
The first thing that most vets will do is to start fluid therapy. This consists of the intravenous introduction of fluids into the cat’s body to replace the ones that have been lost via vomiting and diarrhea. It also has the effect of 'flushing' many of the ingested substances from the body via urination. It may also be necessary to administer drugs that inhibit the production of stomach acid. This is done in order to prevent the empty stomach from damaging itself and to prevent further vomiting. After the cat's condition stabilizes, the vet will typically recommend feeding the animal a fairly bland diet in order to both aid digestion and allow the liver to recover.
Symptoms will usually persist for around three days or so. After this, recovery times can vary depending on the severity of the poisoning, but most cats can expect to be back to a relatively good state of health within the space of two weeks. Limiting the cat's activity and allowing them to get plenty of rest will shorten the recovery period even further. In severe cases, it may be necessary to book weekly follow-up veterinary visits in order to both treat secondary complications and administer physiotherapy to cats badly affected by the neurotoxin present in cycads.
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