2013, Sarah Hartwell

While researching from nineteenth century cat books, I found a surprising number of references to fits. Cats were considered very prone to fits. Discounting fits caused by fright, I wondered what was going on.

Frances Simpson, editor of “Cats for Pleasure and Profit” and “The Book of The Cat” endorsed "Tinkers Kit-Kat Mixture" which claimed to prevent and cure “Distemper, Fits and Fevers”. Simpson considered fits rather common amongst highly-bred cats, especially at the time of teething. Her advice was to plunge the cat in a bath of hot water right up to the neck and to place a rag or sponge soaked in cold water on the head, and bathe the face. Recovery would be swift. Small doses of bromide of potassium (2 grains for cats, 1 grain for kittens) from time to time to soothe the nerves and prevent recurrence.

Nowadays, potassium bromide is still used as an anti-epileptic medication for dogs and cats, but some of the other medications of Simpsom’s time were as likely to cause seizures as to cure them. Even bromide has to be used with caution; its use for treating cats is limited due to its long half-life (12 days) and the substantial risk of causing lung inflammation (pneumonitis). It can also have side effects of muscle spasms (clonic seizures), tremors and ataxia (unco-ordinated movement)


In 1870, the Honourable Lady Cust produced a book called "The Cat" in which she recommended slitting the ear as a cure for fits. She wrote that fits were common in young cats just at their full growth; particularly male cats. Females were less subject to fits and never suffered fits after they have raised a litter. “An approaching attack of delirium or fits may be seen by a general difference of manner in the animal, an uneasy restlessness, nervousness, and peculiar appearance of the eye, which once observed cannot be mistaken.” A gentle aperient (laxative) supposedly prevented this becoming a full-blown fit. The Victorian all-purpose remedy was to empty the bowels as it was considered dangerous to carry around too much waste matter in the body.

Cust tells us “When seized with delirium, a cat rushes about suddenly, violently, its eyes wide open and staring fearfully. It darts frequently to a window in the first impulse, and then always into the darkest place where it would remain and die if not secured.”

Cust wrote ”If it amounts to a regular fit (which symptoms in all subjects are alike), take a sharp pair of scissors and slightly slit one of the ears, but not to disfigure the cat, it must be in the thin part of the ear. Have ready some warm water, and hold the ear in it, gently rubbing, and encouraging the blood to flow; a few drops give relief. The most timid lady need not fear to perform this slight operation, as during the attack the animal does not feel, nor does it resist in any way; but I always use thick gloves in handling animals myself; and recommend them to others. When the attack is over, keep the cat very quiet, as you will observe it is very nervous after, and alarmed with the slightest sound; and let its food be rather less in quantity, and less nutritious in quality, until it is past the time of fits.”

Bleeding seems to have been the accepted remedy from the 1870s until at least 1910. Jennings (Domestic and Fancy Cats, 1901) wrote “FITS [. . . ] quite as frequently occur with kittens as with matured cats, and when the animals are in a healthy condition but little good results from medical treatment. Quiet and air are the best incentives to recovery. As with rabbits, bleeding from an ear-vein prevents a recurrence; giving one grain bromide of potassium daily in the cat's food, coupled with proper constitutional conditions, is all that can be done in these cases. while Stables (Cats, Their Points and Characteristics) wrote ”Cats are subject to various sorts of fits, delirious and otherwise. The great thing is to give instant relief. Try first a common smelling-salts bottle held to the nostrils, or a pinch of dry snuff ; if that does no good, pussy must be bled. I make a minute incision on the lower part of the ear behind, with a fine-pointed lancet, and then foment with a sponge and hot water.

Also according to Stables in 1872, if a cat should have a convulsion, a smelling-salts bottle should be held to his nostrils, or a pinch of dry snuff and, if this does no good, “Pussy must be bled”. In 1908, Frank Townend Barton (The Cat; Its Points and Management in Health and Disease) wrote ”Convulsions. Both kittens and adult cats more especially the former are occasionally subject to fits or convulsions, which vary in their severity, and usually pass away within a short time of the onset, but recurrence is frequent. Irritation of the digestive organs, such as that resulting from the presence of worms, teething, etc., is a frequent cause of convulsions. Treatment - Give a mild dose of castor oil, and follow up with a pill composed of 5 grains of bromide of ammonium, given two or three times per day. Feed on easily assimilated food. It is generally advisable to treat the little creature for worms (see Worms) before commencing with the bromide.

Another ailment much described at the time was “Megrims” which was elaborated as Vertigo, or Meniere's Disease in the books. Cats sometimes showed symptoms of vertigo or dizziness, manifested by running round in circles, rushing about the room, and losing their equilibrium. Internal canker of the ear (a bad ear mite infestation) was one of the causes, but in other cases 5 grains of bromide of potash (potassium bromide) were to be given in water twice or three times daily. This had a sedative action on the cat.

Too much raw meat, especially pork, was believed to cause fits. Could worms, i.e. tapeworm cysts in the brain have been the culprit? Sometimes tapeworm larvae can migrate from the gut to the brain resulting in seizures and other neurological symptoms.

In 1896, scientist Francis Galton described "Three Generations of Lunatic Cats" in The Spectator magazine of April 11, 1896. With the benefit of hindsight, it's quite likely that the rather unsociable offspring had been sired by an indigenous wildcat ("Scottish Wildcat") as the species which extended into northern areas of England at that time. Several of the fits sound like cases of epilepsy or poisoning. Galton wrote: "The alternations of temper in household cats are often sudden and violent, their spit-fire ways being doubtless due to the imperfect character of their domestication, no other domestic animals being descended from a more ferocious ancestry. It is not strange that the normal characteristics, of their ancestors should break out. Not a few children have fits of fury like those of our savage forefathers, and not a few kittens have still more furious fits like those of the British wild-cat. But besides all this, domestic cats are subject to mental disorder which would tend to be combined) as they are- in man, with vile temper and outbursts of rage. The seven instances in the same family group that are about to be mentioned, concur in supporting the belief indicated by the title to these remarks, though some of them, especially the first, might be considered oases of the, so to speak, normal attacks of fury just described, if they were taken separately. The founder of the mad family is (1) ‘ Phyllis ’ ; her offspring are (2), ‘ Tessie ‘ and (3) and (4) ; the offspring of ‘ Tessie ’ are (5), (6), and (7). ‘ Tessie’ is now destroyed ; ' Phyllis ‘ still lives and produces a litter quarterly. The male parents are of course unknown. As a rule, only one kitten of a litter has ever been kept. My information is through letters from five different persons. The evidence is either first-hand, or else the report of first-hand evidence collected for me. I have, also received verbal accounts.

(1), ‘Phyllis,’ belongs to Mrs. Butler, of Ewart Park, Northumberland, now residing at 8 North View, Wimbledon„ When ‘ Phyllis ’ was a kitten she had wild fits, tearing round and round the room, "swearing” horribly, and fighting with teeth and claws anyone who tried to pick her up. Her temper is now very unequal and often vile. Her offspring are (2), (3), and (4).
(2), ' Tessie,' daughter of ‘Phyllis’ was always ill-conditioned' and unfriendly; only one person, a servant, had any hold over her. She was pronounced “very nervous.” Her kittens went mad so often that her owner got a bad name among her friends as a cat-provider, so ‘ Jessie ’ was destroyed.
(3), son or daughter of ‘ Phyllis’ was given to a bachelor (an Admiralty official) as a pet. After a while the landlady of his lodgings declared it to be “ a horror.” It was so strange in its ways that she felt that "the devil was about” when the cat was near her ; it was not like other cats. It plunged its head in the milk, it broke every egg it could get at, and was very skilful in getting at them, all out of pure mischief, for it ate very little ; it destroyed all victuals such as chops, or else hid them. The servant described the climax of its career by saying that the cat at last took it into its head to walk side¬ways, with its hind feet on the ground and fore-feet up on the wall, in so uncanny a manner that the landlady, suddenly seeing its performance, dropped a saucepan she was holding and screamed aloud with fright. She afterwards contrived to get it killed.
(4), is now a kitten less than a month old, a lovely little thing, but it claws and spits like an old cat. Under this same head I will quote a generalised description of many of ‘Phyllis’s’ other kittens.- “ they all inherit their mother’s temper and are charming little faeries in their youth; they settle down afterwards, and are all good mousers,” I have heard of at least one that had fits of fury like her mother.

We now come to the offspring of ' Tessie ’ (2).
(5), was given to C. and his wife when about six months old. Two months later the family, being then abroad, received news from their servants of alarming strangeness in the ways of the cat. It had been left for a moment quietly sleeping in the kitchen when they heard a peculiar sound, and found the cat moaning and scratching along the basement passage; then it dashed up the stairs and, jumping up, struck its head against the wall at the head of the stairs ; it rebounded and rushed downstairs, foaming at the month, and disappeared. After long search they found it in the larder, hidden behind the bread-pan, crouched against the wall, and there it remained all day quite exhausted. The next attack took place a fortnight later, again without any warning. The cat began by moping about the kitchen, and eventually jumped up the wall, knocking its head with violence against a high shelf, foaming at the month, and it again hid itself, but this time in the scullery. The third attack was ten days later, and of a similar kind, with foaming at the mouth, and it was even wilder than before, Instructions were accordingly sent to destroy the cat. [Note, 2015: Epilepsy?]
(6), was given as a kitten of one month old to Mrs. M., a sempstress at Wimbledon. It behaved normally for three weeks. Then it was seized with a mad fit, and tore with “ lightning speed ” round and round the room, trying to run up the wall, and it knocked its head against the ceiling, uttering no cry nor sound. It did not rush at any one, but appeared to be trying to get away from everything. This went on for ten minutes, and then it became quiet and much exhausted. After three days another similar fit came on, and then a third and a fourth. A workman who was temporarily living in the house took a fancy to the kitten, and when Mrs. M. would keep it no longer, begged to have it in his room, where it seemed happy and at home. Next day it had a still wilder attack than over, and quite terrified its new owner, so it was killed.[Note, 2015: Epilepsy?]
(7), was given to Mrs. J., who was very fond of it. It was quiet and very meek, but began after a while to continually bend and press its head downwards against the ground, in such a position that it seemed about to take a somersault. Just before it died it ran round the room, bumping its bead against things as though it were blind. “We helped its death as it seemed so unhappy.” The current story among members of Mrs. J.’s family was peculiar, but not wholly incorrect, namely, “that the kitten was gentle and affectionate and stood on its head and purred till it died.” [Note, 2015: possibly a lysosomal storage or degenerative disease?]

A clue to the causes of fits can be found in "How to Keep Your Cat in Health," written by "Two Friends of the Race" in 1901. It contained such advice as "If your cat should be taken ill, have as little as possible to do with drugs, unless it be in the homeopathic form". Cats with colds were dosed with herbal medications such as tonic of tincture of arsenicum in a spoonful of milk. The same tonic was given for distemper, along with a mixture of eggs, cream and brandy. Tincture of arsenicum was recommended for mange. The symptoms of mange were to be treated with sulphur ointment, carbolic acid ointment, green iodide of mercury ointment and acid sulphurous lotion. Arsenic was used as a tonic and an antiseptic; prussic acid was used as an anti-spasmodic and for pain relief; lead was used as an astringent and a sedative. Hence the medicines given to sedate the cat would, over the longer term, make its condition worse.


Cats were frequently given milk that had been adulterated with substances toxic to them. In the 1870s, people wanted ways to keep milk it sweet for up to 36 hours longer than unadulterated milk, especially in the warmer season or during transportation from dairy to city. Boracic (boric) acid was believed to purify milk because it removed the sour taste and smell from milk that had gone off. Mrs Beeton told her readers that it was "quite a harmless addition." Unfortunately she was wrong; small amounts of boracic acid can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, while continued consumption causes kidney damage and eventually kidney failure. It also affected unborn kittens. Because boracic acid adjusted the pH of the milk and had limited anti- microbial action, it could conceal dangerous levels of bacteria in the milk, including TB.

A more expensive additive was salicylic acid (the active ingredient in modern aspirin) which also removed the sour taste by adjusting the pH of the milk. Another milk preservative, formadehyde (formalin) is highly toxic, even in small amounts. The New York Times of May 17, 1900, reported ‘Formalin, Used to "Keep Milk from Spoiling," Kills Cats. Chicago, May 16 - Formalin, the chemical used in milk preservatives, will kill a cat. What will it do to a child?" Chief Milk Inspector Grady, who is striving to stop the prevalent use of preparations supposed to "keep milk from spoiling," made the remark to-day and declared himself ready to back up the assertion as to the deadly nature of Formalin by practical, ocular evidence. Kittens and guinea pigs, Mr Grady says, have been experimented on with the milk preservatives and the effect upon them has been fatal. Take two kittens for instance, two healthy cats of the same age and size. We would feed one kitten on pure milk and the other on milk which had been doctored with preparations of Formalin. The result," he said, "was invariably the same. The kitten which was fed on pure milk grew fat and hearty; the other kitten began to droop, languish and lose strength. Soon it would fall sick; in two of three weeks it would die."

In the 1870s, milk was often stretched (diluted) with up to 25 per cent of water. The water itself was often contaminated. To hide the bluish hue and thin consistency of diluted milk, dairymen or milkmen added thickening agents and sweeteners. At first these were fairly innocuous vegetable agents, but later on the dairy trade press carried aggressive adverts for chemicals such as aniline and sulphonated azo-dyes. The Victorians were very keen on scientific advances and were naďve of the dangers. Londoners sought richly coloured, yellowish milk that suggested freshness and creaminess. The chemicals used to improve the look and consistency of diluted or skimmed milk often contained impurities, including residual amounts of arsenic.

Milk might be adulterated several times – once by the dairyman (to preserve it), once by the milkman (to stretch it) and again by the housewife/cook (to keep it sweeter for longer) which meant adulterants could reach harmful levels. Tests on milk in 1882 showed that a fifth of samples had been adulterated, most often by thrifty householders.

The Boston Evening Transcript of, Aug 5, 1905 mentioned “A writer in the Ladies' Field recently mentioned the discrimination shown by a couple of cats as to the quality of the milk supplied to them in London and in the country. In town, though they shared the milk supplied to the human members of the family from a well-known dairy company, they despised milk. But when in the country for their holidays, where there was a home farm and the milk was fresh and entirely without preservatives in it, they drank it in large quantities and with every mark of genteel satisfaction.”

A partial solution to milk preservation was the introduction of domestic refrigerators in the early 20th century. However, these leaked toxic gases such as ammonia, methyl chloride and sulphur dioxide, that harmed the respiratory system. Since cats were often found in or around the kitchen, they breathed in these toxic fumes.

Cats were also given bread crumbled in milk or gravy. Bread (and even the flour bought for home-baked bread) was all too often adulterated with plaster of Paris, chalk or alum (a detergent). Alum causes bowel problems and constipation or chronic diarrhoea.


Many of the medications given to cats, or used in their living quarters are now known to be toxic. In small quantities the cats might seem generally under the weather, but in larger quantities some of those preparations were lethal. Here are some of the remedies and commonly recommended in cat care books of the time. It hasn’t been possible for me to find out what was in some of the patent remedies of the time, but they no doubt ranged from ineffective sugar pills through to highly toxic conditioning powders.

Victorians linked cleanliness to ideas of morality and respectability. Ammonia and Carbolic Acid were common household disinfectants in the Victorian and Edwardian home. Chemical cleaning products were heavily advertised and highly effective, but contained toxic ingredients such as carbolic acid (phenol), were harmful to cats. Cats that walked across a freshly cleaned surface licked these toxic products from their paws. Repeated or prolonged skin contact with phenol can dermatitis or chemical burns. It is quickly absorbed through the skin, leading to paralysis of the central nervous system and rapid hypothermia. Inhalation of phenol fumes can cause fluid in the lungs that the owners mistook for pneumonia. In their efforts to keep catteries hygienic, breeders risked poisoning their cats. Phenol affects the central nervous system and heart and can cause erratic heartbeat, seizures, and coma. In addition to all of this – and bad news for breeders - it increased the risk of abortion, stillbirth and underweight kittens.

Sanitas disinfectant was a household name and available by the gallon. It could be used as a disinfectant, vapour, mouth wash, gargle, antiseptic for the skin and to cure eczema and mange. Sanitas was also used as a cage disinfectant at cat and dog shows and was also sprayed into the air to keep it sweet. It was advertised as non-toxic. It took me a lot of digging to find that Sanitas contained hydrogen peroxide, camphoric acid, thymol and camphoric peroxide oil. It also seems to have contained pine oil and eucalyptus oil which gave it a pleasant fragrance. It seems to have been one of the earliest pine disinfectants. Pine oil, eucalyptus oil and thymol are all phenolic compounds, and therefore Sanitas would have been toxic to cats. Exposure to this popular household disinfectant could have contributed to the cat’s propensity to fits in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Another recommended disinfectant was Antozone. Frances Simpson recommended it in "Cats for Pleasure and Profit": A very safe and absolutely odourless disinfectant is “Antozone,” as used at the Cat Club Shows. I have found it very efficacious to sprinkle in cat-houses, and a little mixed with water can be used with advantage in cleansing the floors and woodwork. A spray specially adapted for disinfecting can be purchased." Antozone is another term for an aqueous solution of hydrogen peroxide. A three percent solution is still safely used today as an emetic, but in cats it tends to produce excessive salivation rather than vomiting. This would have been far safer than Sanitas.

Tobacco or snuff, recommended by some writers in the 1880s and 1890s, were considered remedial, but even small amounts of nicotine are highly toxic if ingested. The early signs of nicotine poisoning would have included excitability, ataxia (unco-ordinated movements), tremor, dizziness and seizures. The treatment used to cure a seizure would likely have provoked more seizures.

Calomel was used to treat jaundice and other ailments. The recommended dosage was half a grain daily. Calomel is mercurous chloride (Hg2Cl2) and was used internally as a laxative/purgative, and externally as a disinfectant until the early 20th century. It was also used as a teething compound. During the 1700s, mercury preparations had become a popular remedy for various physical and mental ailments. Calomel remained in use in Britain until the 1950s.

Arsenic and lead, present in several early remedies, were toxic and could cause convulsions preceded by general sickness. Arsenic in small amounts was even considered a tonic. Prussic acid. Used in some remedies, is an old name for hydrogen cyanide and is toxic if inhaled or ingested. Prussic acid was used in the killing jars of butterfly collectors.

Turpentine and coal oil were used as early de-worming compounds and, when mixed with animal fats, as chest rubs. These have been used since ancient times as home remedies. Turpentine was taken internally for intestinal parasites and as a general cure-all. However it is toxic to humans and even more highly toxic to cats. Symptoms of turpentine poisoning would have included dizziness, irritability and central nervous system symptoms that might easily have been mistaken as an attack of megrims.

Nux vomica (Strychnos nux-vomica ) was widely used as a remedy until about the 1940s. The active ingredient is alkaloid strychnine which causes violent convulsions and death. If the patient survived the initial dosage, the half-life of strychnine was 12 hours. As an indication of its toxicity, strychnine was used as a rat poison.

Syrup of Squill (from the Sea squill, Drimia maritime) stimulates the heart in low doses, but is an emetic and toxin in higher doses. Extract of squill was used as an expectorant and cough remedy, however, it is also a contact irritant, causes miscarriage, and has been used as a rat/mouse poison. Nowadays squill is considered dangerous though tiny amounts are still used in human cough remedies.

There were also many preparations available whose contents aren't recorded. For example, Mr Wilson, Mr Tinker and Mr Salvo each produced a range of powders and potions for use against worms, distemper, show fever and other ailments. "Nomis Powder" was advertised for preventing or treating show fever (feline upper respiratory diseases). Their effectiveness would have varied and some almost certainly contained ingredients now known to be toxic to cats.

While many of the remedies contained very small amounts of these poisons, regular doses during the course of an illness (or over-dosing by an anxious owner) could result in dangerous levels in the patient. Though a pharmacist carefully measured the quantities of these substances when he made up the prescription, he would not have known that compounds non-toxic to humans were potentially deadly to cats. Some owners would have bought the ingredients and mixed their own remedies as directed by cat care books; these risked being less precise than those made by the pharmacist or chemist.

The sale of arsenic and many other toxic substances were subject to the strict controls imposed by The Pharmacy Act (1868) and The Dangerous Drugs and Poisons Amendment Act (1923) along with several other acts of Parliament aimed at controlling the sale of dangerous substances to the general public. In the USA, The Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) was one piece of the pieces of legislation aimed at preventing companies and individuals from claiming that their particular product could prevent or cure dangerous diseases by its sole use.


Even if pussy never required medication in her life, the Victorian and Edwardian Household contained plenty of toxins that could cause fits, fainting and similar ailments in cats.

The use of natural gas (methane) for early indoor lighting released significant amounts of carbon monoxide into the home. This is more readily absorbed by the blood than oxygen and could result in lethargy, fainting, disorientation and death. Luckily the draughtiness of the buildings and the expense of gas lighting (limiting its use) probably kept it at sub-lethal levels.

The introduction of oil and gas lighting, along with the abolition of window taxes, meant that the Victorian middle classes could enjoy rich, vivid colours on their walls. Particularly popular colours in wallpaper were Scheele’s Green and Schweinfurt Green. These vibrant, long-lasting pigments were made from toxic copper arsenite. Because the symptoms of poisoning by green wallpaper resembled diptheria, it was some time before copper arsenite was identified as the cause of several deaths. The culprit was not confined to green wallpapers, though these contained the greatest amounts, but was present in blue, pink, yellow, brown, grey, white and patterned papers. These wallpapers emitted a toxic vapour that was deadly in an enclosed space. In addition, if a cat licked or scratched the toxic wallpaper, it inhaled or ingested the arsenical compound.

For many centuries, lead was used for water pipes, but was also a source of health problems at a time when lead toxicity was poorly understood. Lead and arsenic paints were present on Victorian children’s toys . . . and kittens were popular nursery pets. Could these young cats’ supposed propensity to fits while teething have been due to them chewing on toxic toys? White lead was used in white household paints of the time. Children – and cats of course – could ingest harmful amounts of lead by licking painted surfaces or chewing at flaking paint.

Lead persisted in cosmetics into the early twentieth century. As late as 1869, the American Medical Association published a paper entitled “Three Cases of Lead Palsy from the Use of a Cosmetic Called ‘Laird’s Bloom of Youth’.” This skin whitening lotion was much advertised as a “delightful and harmless toilet preparation,” but it contained lead acetate and lead carbonate. Other popular blooms, balms, powders and potions of the 19th and early 20th century such as Berry’s Freckle Ointment, Milk of Roses, Snow White Enamel and Flake White contained mercury, lead, carbolic acid, mercuric chloride as well as other hazardous compounds. Any cat affectionately licking its owners hands or face was liable to ingest these toxins. 

One of the major poisoning hazards to domestic pets would have rat and mouse poisons. Poison-laced food might be eaten directly by the cat, or a rodent incapacitated by poison might be caught and eaten – including its toxic gut contents. Popular rat poisons included water-soluble barium compounds, strychnine, arsenic, thallium.


Unlike the cats in Simpson’s time, cats today don’t appear prone to fits or convulsions. I believe this is due to the reduction of household toxins, ranging from arsenic gas to lead paint, and better understanding and control of potentially noxious medications. It seems incredible to the modern reader that strychnine and arsenic were used therapeutically, or that cats were dosed with mercury compounds of turpentine.


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