What is Desert Azalea Poisoning?
Also commonly referred to as the 'desert rose', the desert azalea is a flowering plant that originates from sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Despite that the desert azalea can be very poisonous to many species of animal, including cats, many gardeners in temperate regions have adopted the plant as an ornamental flower, with some even using it as a potted plant indoors.The toxins contained within the sap of the flower have a long history as a poison used in hunting large game.
Symptoms of Desert Azalea Poisoning in Cats
Desert azalea can be especially dangerous due to the rapid onset of symptoms. For this reason it is important to seek medical attention for an affected animal as soon as possible.
A short time after ingesting the desert azalea sap, the cat will begin to exhibit signs of digestive discomfort as the toxins begin to irritate the stomach, including avoidance of food, possibly foul temper and retching. This will quickly develop into full-blown vomiting, as the body attempts to expel the desert azalea toxins. Left unchecked, vomiting can quickly lead to dehydration, so owners should make water readily available to the animal.
The cat will also begin to experience a loss of bowel control. This can begin within a couple of hours of consuming the plant. Diarrhea can be especially dangerous due to the sheer amount of fluid that it removes from the body in a short space of time. This can, in short order, lead to the onset of dehydration.
An animal affected by desert azalea poisoning will often appear extremely subdued to an outside observer. The cat will usually ignore attempts to play with it and will appear apathetic even when harassed by other household pets. This is often seen in conjunction with a general lack of nimbleness when moving and a noticeable level of muscle weakness.
Although somewhat less noticeable than the other symptoms, it is worth noting that many cats suffering from desert azalea poisoning will exhibit an irregular heartbeat. If left untreated, this can prove fatal, as it will allow fluids to build up in the tissues surrounding the heart (referred to as 'edema') which will put pressure on the heart muscle itself. This eventually causes congestive heart failure as the heart is no longer able to effectively circulate blood around the body. To detect an irregular heartbeat, owners need only measure the cat's pulse by placing their fingers directly onto the animal's upper torso.
Causes of Desert Azalea Poisoning in Cats
The poisonous substances found in desert azaleas are referred to as 'glycosides' and function mainly as a way to fight off would-be predators. Glycosides are essentially molecules that can be bonded with other chemicals. They are used by a vast amount of organisms (including humans and cats) to store substances for later use, whereupon they are broken down by enzymes and the bonded chemicals are released. The glycosides in desert azaleas, however, bind directly to the victim's cell membranes and interfere with their ability to metabolize various substances within the body. This results in 'depolarization' of the cell, whereby its electric charge shifts into the negative, impairing its ability to properly function and communicate with other cells. The most immediate and noticeable consequence of this change is the onset of heart palpitations. If enough glycoside is ingested, this can lead to cardiac arrest and death.
Diagnosis of Desert Azalea Poisoning in Cats
When a cat is admitted to a clinic with desert azalea poisoning, there are several tests that the vet can do to confirm a diagnosis. The first is to manually inspect the cat and ascertain that there are no underlying conditions at play, as well as identify its general state of health and the progression of the poisoning thus far. The second thing that can be done is to take an ultrasound imaging scan of the heart, as this will let the vet precisely gauge the seriousness of the case. Finally, a blood sample can be taken for laboratory testing in order to confirm the diagnosis. It is also probable that the vet will have a battery of questions for the owner regarding the chronology of the symptoms as well as the cat's general health record.
Treatment of Desert Azalea Poisoning in Cats
The first thing that can be done is to administer antiarrhythmic drugs (such as atropine) to the cat. These will help settle the animal's heart rate and avoid heart failure. Secondly, extra fluids can be intravenously administered to replace those lost via diarrhea and vomiting. Activated charcoal can also be administered orally in order to prevent further absorption of toxins via the digestive system. If the poisoning has been caught early, the vet may wish to pump the contents of the cat’s stomach to prevent the bulk of the poison from being digested.
Recovery of Desert Azalea Poisoning in Cats
In severe cases, the vet may wish to keep the cat at the clinic for a few days so that they can be under constant observation, ensuring that its cardiac problems do not worsen. Total recovery time varies from case to case, but the majority of cats can expect to return to normalcy in roughly two to three weeks. Poisoning from a plant such as desert azalea can be very draining, so owners should be sure to restrict their cat's movements for some time to let them recuperate. It may also be necessary to feed them a bland or even liquid diet so that the stomach has ample opportunity to recover from the ordeal.