Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bugs are Swarming —
Protect Cats from Bug Spray Exposure

It all started when my neighbor Bruce noticed that his cat was missing. About five years young, “Zebra,” named for his vivid dark gray and white tiger-stripes, was the neighborhood Tom cat, going from house to house to mark his territory while seeking out treats. We all knew the large, distinct-looking male cat who made his rounds every morning like clockwork. But no one had seen him, not even “our gang” of pre-teen kids who play in the vacant lots and skateboard the neighborhood streets. Bruce posted a “lost” notice at the local animal shelter, but heard nothing. Where was Zebra?

At about the same time, the bugs were beginning to reemerge after the colder weeks had passed. Although it was still February, the weather had turned balmy and the flowers were blooming, typical of Florida winters. One day, my neighbor Mary and I noticed a terrific swarm of ants between our two houses. We both attacked the ants with a vengeance.

Because she had it on hand, Mary chose to use fire ant bait as her weapon of choice, even though these ants were not fire ants, but Florida carpenter ants. Fire ant bait is flavored like meat in order to entice ants to take the bait back to their nest where the queen will eat it. If the queen dies, the whole colony will die. Mary broadcast the bait all over her yard, including the side yard between our two houses.

I chose to use bug spray to kill the swarm which was coming out of the cracks in my driveway and crawling up the side of my attached porch, presumably to move into some nice rotten wood in the flat roof. (Got to get that replaced, I know!) The ants were so numerous, they carpeted the concrete porch stairs, so I sprayed generously, coating the landing, each step and into all the cracks until they were dead, dead, dead.

I didn’t think too much about whether or not my own cat, Trixie, who is part Siamese, would be hurt by the spray which she would inevitably sit in while sunning herself, day after day, on the porch steps landing. I didn’t think about how Trixie would lick the dead ants and oily residue from her fur as she cleaned herself. Mary didn’t think too much about pets like Bruce’s cat, Zebra, and other animals that might eat the fire ant bait, which smelled like meat.

However, within a week, Bruce’s cat, Zebra, was missing.

About five days after I sprayed bug spray, My own cat, Trixie, was panting, had become quite lethargic, and was sleeping all day. The next day, Trixie stopped eating and drinking, but seemed to lick her lips unconsciously. However, she still was mobile and continued to sun herself on the porch steps, the ones I had sprayed.


A week after spraying bug spray, Trixie began to alternate between moods every few hours. In one “mood,” she began to have tremors and her eyes seemed large and black and gazed off into nowhere. If I touched her or moved her to her favorite sleeping spots, she would barely respond.

In another “mood,” she seemed groggy and did not recognize me nor her surroundings, but wandered furtively about the house looking for dark corners to hide in. If she felt she was not being watched, she would emerge to sleep in some sunny spot.

I Googled cat diseases and came across which helps animal caregivers diagnose their pet’s affliction. First, you pick your pet’s symptoms. Then, the computer gives you a list of ailments that could possibly be causing them. I chose these symptoms from the provided list:

• lack of appetite (anorexia)

• abnormal behavior

• sluggishness (lethargy)

• trembling

• tremors

I’ve owned a number of cats nearly all my life, and I’m no stranger to many of their ailments, so I had an idea of what Trixie didn’t have. The illness came on suddenly and she went from happily playful to practically catatonic within a few short days. Most diseases come on slowly or show signs of infection. But Trixie was not vomiting and did not have diarrhea; had all her shots; had not eaten raw meat which can contain parasites; and had not eaten lilies, another cause of cat poisoning.

Hmmm. Pyrethrin / Pyrethroid Poisoning. What’s that?

I checked the label on my bug spray. Sure enough, there it was under active ingredients: “bifenthrin… 0.05%”


Bifenthrin is a pyrethroid insecticide. When sprayed on contact, pyrethrins and pyrethroids can stop ants and other creepy crawlies dead in their tracks by attacking their nervous system and paralyzing them.

Pyrethrins are manufactured from the seeds of daisy chrysanthemums, also known as mums, a popular flower which blooms in the fall. Pyrethroids are a very similar compound, but are manufactured chemically. Both pyrethrins and pyrethroids don’t cause cancer in humans, are the main ingredient in many professional liquid bug treatments and bug bombs, and are even used in flea dips and topical flea treatments for dogs. One would assume that since they are completely “organic,” they are harmless.
(See Integrated Pest Management, Texas A&M agricultural extension and Wikipedia on Pyrethrins.)

However, pyrethrins and pyrethroids are not safe for all mammals. A fact sheet published by the National Pesticide Information Center explains that while pyrethrins and pyrethroids are one of the least poisonous insecticides to humans, they can have adverse reactions to different species. “Rats exposed to pyrethrins exhibited difficulty or rapid breathing, incoordination, sprawling of limbs, tremors, aggression, sensitivity to external stimuli, twitching, and exhaustion.” Except for aggression, these were definitely Trixie’s symptoms.

Bifenthrin, the poison in the spray I used, is also insoluble in water and will last for up to 8 months before breaking down, according to Wikipedia. This makes it ideal as a barrier to keep bugs out. However, this longevity also makes it deadly to fish and, surprisingly, household cats. (See Wikipedia on Bifenthrin) suggested that I try to wash off any remaining bug spray residue with a bath of warm water and dishwashing liquid. Trixie was not happy, but agreed to the bath. I wrapped her in a hot towel out of the dryer to keep her warm and sat with her on the couch for a few hours watching TV, changing towels until she was completely dry.

Patiently, I waited a few more days to see if Trixie would improve. However, she seemed to have lost her ability to feel hunger or thirst, so she would not eat, but still moved her mouth in an odd way as if licking her lips. She shivered most of the time because her body could not regulate her temperature to warm her. If she sat in the sun, she overheated because her body could not cool her. I desperately enticed her to eat by giving her treats, such as salmon and even resorted to using an eye dropper to force feed her water and chicken broth. However, Trixie was wasting away and had retreated to her favorite sleeping box where I think she planned to die. I wondered if Trixie, now weakened, had finally succumbed to one of the many untreatable geriatric cat conditions which had taken my other beloved pet cats before her.

Trixie also began to experience “mood #3.” At times, she was alert, but it seemed as if all her senses hurt at once. The daylight was suddenly too bright and she preferred instead to crouch in her favorite cardboard box. Every noise frightened her: a phone ringing, a door closing, any sudden sound. Then, if I touched her, she winced and backed away as if my touch were painful. However, she failed to meow in protest since she seemed to have lost her voice.

It had now been two weeks and two days since Trixie had been exposed to bug spray and I decided to take her to the vet.

As expected, the vet could do little but confirm my suspicions that Trixie had most likely been poisoned by pyrethroids. Although her blood work was completely normal and indicated overall good health (which ruled out geriatric diseases), her body temperature in the cold vet office was only 99 degrees F, far below the normal 100 to 102 average for cats. She had also lost two pounds and was dehydrated, the only clinical signs evident of this type of poisoning. (I have since learned that you can also send away to have hair samples checked.)

My vet gave Trixie an IV to help rehydrate her, then put her on an appetite stimulant. This worked well and after a few days, she was eating regularly on her own again. All we could do was wait, keep her comfortable and warm indoors, and hope for the best. I made a bed for her in one of our sunnier windows and put her food and water up on the window seat with her. Twice a day, I moved her down to her litter box to see if she would use it, then moved her back again.


It had now been three weeks since Trixie was exposed to bug spray, but she seemed no better. I gave up trying to pick her up, because she would now stiffen into a tight ball in extreme agony, then retreat under our bed. I finally agreed to let her stay there, curled up between two storage boxes. I shoved the water bowl and wet food bowl under our bed twice a day which she thankfully ate. (I put the bowl in a moat of water to discourage ants). I also moved the litter box into the bedroom and kept the door closed so she’d have peace and quiet.

Some of her skin (but not the hair) began to peel off in large pieces, perhaps where her skin made contact with the ant poison.

By three weeks and two days, she finally began to move around a bit again. However, she still seemed disoriented and confused and slept constantly, did not seem to recognize me as her owner, and was quite weak and stiff.


Four weeks and one day after exposure, Trixie finally had a good day. First, she seemed to recognize me. Although she hobbled, she walked on her own to the back door and meowed to go outside where I was doing some gardening. I watched her carefully as she curled up on a pile of dead grass and took a nap. However, the next day, she was stiff and weak and didn’t want to be touched.


It has now been five weeks since Trixie was exposed to pyrethroids in bug spray. The nerve poison has had devastating effects on my geriatric cat, but each day, I see small improvements. She still hobbles whenever she walks, arches her back stiffly, and sometimes collapses on top of her crumpled legs. Some days, she is as weak and as limp as a rag doll and cannot do much more than lift her head. However, she has moments of increased coordination when she is able to walk on her own to her sleeping box, food bowl, and litter box. She now lets me pet her, purrs, and can meow softly. Her eyes can now focus and adjust to light. She recognizes me as her owner and even sat on my husband’s lap. However, she still cannot jump or climb onto the couch and has moments of confusion. Two steps forward, one step back.


I now only use boric acid powder to treat bugs I find inside my house. Boric acid is a naturally occurring compound of oxygen and the element boron and found in dried up salt lake beds. I buy boric acid in powder form (without the added sugar, which makes a clompy mess) and sprinkle it around the baseboards, behind the stove, fridge, under the sink, and into bug holes. Although boric acid works slowly, it will eradicate bugs inside your home and other dry environments where it dehydrates and eats away at a bugs exoskeleton (fortunate for us mammals, we have endoskeletons). If a bug eats boric acid, it will also disrupt its metabolism. Aside from costing much less than chemical pesticides, it is not very harmful to mammals, including cats. Boric acid is so safe for humans, it is applied to treat athletes foot, yeast infections, ear aches, and acne. Humans consume boron found naturally in fruits and vegetables as a part of a healthy diet. (See National Cotton Batting Institute and Wikipedia on boric acid)


I admit that I still use household chemical ant sprays, but only outside, and only after putting the cats safely inside. Just yesterday, after a much needed rain, the Florida carpenter ants were back, swarming and climbing up the porch walls again. There really isn’t a faster way to kill the ants than spraying them with bug spray. When it’s dry and sunny outside again, I will scrub down the porch stairs with dish soap and hot water. This will hopefully remove the oily residue which the spray manufacturer advertises as “a long lasting insect barrier.”


Sadly, Bruce’s cat, Zebra, has still not been found. He probably ate poison ant bait, then crawled away and froze to death after the temperature plummeted into the forties at night since the nerve poison disrupts the bodies ability to regulate body temperature.

Some new fire ant baits contain Indoxacarb, a new type of nerve poison which is even more deadly to humans and mammals (as well as those terrible fire ants). If you use ant bait, be sure to know what kind of ants you’re trying to kill and if that type of bait will even work on them.  (EPA fact sheet on indoxacarb)


The lesson here is obvious: Keep cats from getting into contact with bug sprays. If you hire a professional company to treat yearly for termites (and you should in Florida), ask what chemicals they use, look them up on a legitimate Web site (such as the EPA), and find out how long you should keep your cat away from them. See if the bug man can avoid spraying inside if possible. After the bug man has left, wash with soap the outdoor areas where your cat and other neighborhood cats like to sit or nap.

Even if you don’t have pets, please let your neighbors know if you plan to spray or put out bait, so they too, don’t lose their treasured family pets to a torturous fate.


Anonymous said...

im not sure how often you may check this.... i had a statement, well rather a question reguarding your story.... i have reason to believe my cat consumed boric acid now shes having all the systems your saying your cat had... do you have any suggestions? its only been 2 days, but i dont hav the money to take her to the vet now, im worried for her life plese help

Smart Spark said...

Most vets are very compassionate. If you truly don't have money to pay a vet, call around and see if any will see your cat for free or at a discounted rate. There are also animal welfare groups who sometimes will help pay for vet visits. What city and state are you in? Perhaps I can find someone to see your cat.

From research I did in preparing this story, I found that some bug killers containing boric acid also contain other poisons. It's very possible that this is the case with your cat. Boric acid itself does not cause nerve damage.

Anonymous said...

Why did you wait over 2 weeks to take your pet to the vet. You should be charged with animal cruelty. I doubt if the spray was the problem if mixed and used properly.

Karazara said...

Thank you for posting this. I have outside cats and after the third one mysteriously disappeared I started investigating the wooded neighborhood. In my neighbor's yard I discovered a bag of Ortho Max bug-b-gone that had been left on top of a wood pile being pecked at by rats and birds. I never would have even thought about poisoning...just wouldn't have crossed my mind...I hope your cat is doing better.

Anonymous said...

In a very scared frantic moment I sprayed bug spray in my house to kill a spider see I have a very real break down crying panic attack fear of them I wont even get close enough to smash one mopped up the tile and scrubbed and patted the carped were wet and smelled of spay down but I'm very very afraid my sweet cat Siren is going to get sick I read the label after and it just says to keep pets away until dry but I'm not so sure... And very scared for her.

Anonymous said...

You probably saved our cats. I was about to authorize use of that chemical but thought to check the web first. Wiley and Sparky thank you.