What is Activated Charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a liquid medication by mouth, used to try and prevent or slow the absorption of a toxin from the stomach. It is not an antidote as such, but acts to bind to certain toxins so they stay within the gut, rather than pass across the gut wall into the bloodstream. This lowers the absorption of poison into the blood with the aim of reducing organ damage .
Activated charcoal is made from finely ground charcoal and available over the counter and by prescription. It is essential to give the activated charcoal immediately, or very soon after ingestion of the toxin, in order to be of benefit.
Activated Charcoal Procedure in Cats
When a cat ingests a toxin, the first course of action should be to contact the vet for advice. In almost all cases where the cat ate the toxicant recently, it's desirable to induce vomiting to void it from the stomach. Then activated charcoal may be given to mop up any toxicant left lining the gut. However, the best course of action depends on what the cat ate, so professional assessment is essential.
In addition, the vet will assess if the cat is dehydrated or not. There is an increased risk of high blood sodium levels if activated charcoal is given to severely dehydrated cats. In the latter circumstances the vet will put the cat on intravenous fluids.
Activated charcoal is given by mouth. Since most cats are fussy about food, it is unlikely they will voluntarily eat charcoal mixed in a feed. Instead, it may be slowly syringed into the cat's mouth giving her a chance to swallow each mouthful. If, however, the cat is semi-conscious, then this must not be done as there is a risk of inhaling the liquid charcoal into the lungs. Should this be the case the vet may pass a stomach tube, to give the medication directly into the stomach.
Repeat doses may be necessary every 4 to 8 hours, for 24 hours or so, depending on how much toxicant the cat ingested.
Efficacy of Activated Charcoal in Cats
It should be remembered that activated charcoal is not an antidote, but a means of reducing absorption of a toxin. How effective it is depends on the type and amount of poison ingested. In some cases, drugs can undergo 'recycling' by the liver, in which case continued doses are necessary until the drug has been completely eliminated from the body.
The ultimate aim of administering activated charcoal is to lessen the effects of poisoning. To this end, it may be appropriate to make the cat vomit within two hours of ingesting the poison. Dehydrated patients also benefit from intravenous fluids. Wherever a specific antidote exist then it is highly desirable to use it.
Activated Charcoal Recovery in Cats
Activated charcoal in itself is fairly inert and administration is not directly linked to side effects. In a well-hydrated cat the most noticeable effect will be black feces for a day or two afterward.
However, if some toxicant passed into the bloodstream the cat may suffer ill effects as a result. This could include complications such as gastric ulcers, liver failure, or kidney damage.
Cost of Activated Charcoal in Cats
Activated charcoal is relatively inexpensive to purchase, and can be bought over the pharmacy counter for as little as $10. What is more costly is the veterinary consultation to assess the patient, hospitalization fees, and nursing fees for regular administration of the activated charcoal throughout the night if necessary. Thus, simple cases may be relatively inexpensive, and cost $40 -50 to treat. However, a complex poisoning could result in a bill for many hundreds of dollars, should bloods, intravenous fluids, and overnight care be needed.
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Cat Activated Charcoal Considerations
As mentioned already, the patient should be fully hydrated before activated charcoal is administered. In addition, it must be syringed into the mouth slowly and with great care, so the cat gets a chance to swallow between mouthfuls. This is to reduce the risk of the cat inhaling charcoal down into the lungs where it could cause an aspiration pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening condition.
In patients that are not fully conscious, the risk of inhaling them medication is too great and it's best to administer it via a stomach tube. Another option is to pass a intratracheal tube and inflate the cuff, so the airway is completely protected and no charcoal can pass down into the lungs.
Activated Charcoal Prevention in Cats
Preventing the need to administer activated charcoal is a matter of protecting the cat from toxins. This means keeping potential poisons safely out of the cat's reach. Medications (including human ones) should be kept in a closeable cabinet, whilst cleaning products, insecticides, and weedkillers, should all be in cupboards with safety latches. Remember, cats are agile jumpers and merely assuming a box of slug pellets is safe on a high shelf in the garage is not sufficient precaution.
In addition, accidental poisoning by overdosing a prescribed medication or administering a human medicine to a cat is surprisingly common. When medicating a cat read the label twice and make sure you are completely clear as to the recommended dose. If in doubt, a quick call to the vet's office to double check could save your cat's life.