Cats drink antifreeze because of its smell and because it is almost tasteless

You will find it difficult to glean an answer as to why domestic cats appear to like drinking antifreeze. My research indicates to me that we don’t know. It seems that domestic cats drink antifreeze even when it has been spilled accidentally onto the road or leaked out of a vehicle. Most often it is ingested when a cat-hating individual puts it down deliberately. Sometimes it is mixed with food.

Antifreeze poster
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Antifreeze poster

So why do cats drink or ingest something which is so desperately poisonous and which is almost invariably fatal as it destroys the kidneys? I think I have the answer.

Cats decide whether something is worth eating by the way it smells. That is their primary method. If it smells good, they will start eating and if the taste is acceptable, they will continue eating. We know how sensitive cats are to the smell of their food. You only have to put a small tablet in the food as a treatment for conditions such as worms and they won’t eat the food.

Antifreeze is mainly made up of ethylene glycol. They say that ethylene glycol has a sweet taste. It is agreed that domestic cats don’t have sweet taste receptors and therefore don’t taste sweetness. I’ve decided, therefore, that antifreeze does not have a distinct taste to a domestic cat. It is probably almost tasteless. But it does have a distinct smell which is attractive to domestic cats and which is why they drink it.

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Cat pill antidote for antifreeze poisoning

Cat pill antidote for antifreeze poisoning

If it is mixed with attractive food like tuna, I suspect that the cat is attracted by both the tuna and the smell of the ethylene glycol. The taste is secondary when antifreeze is mixed with food.

The kind of cat that is killed by antifreeze is a wandering one. They are indoor-outdoor cats who spends a lot of their time outside. They obviously hunt and their primary activity is probably centred around looking for food. Ingesting antifreeze is a form of scavenging for food. They are suckered into ingesting it because of its smell.

So, what does it smell like? Well, Google search tells me that it has a pungent fruity smell. That does not sound very attractive to a domestic cat. But the swell probably varies between antifreeze products and it probably doesn’t smell fruity to a domestic cat. There is something in the smell which is attractive and which deceives the cat into believing that it is edible. Its smell may have a hint of the carcass of a dead animal about it. That’s a guess but it’s plausible.

Domestic cats aren’t natural scavengers but they will scavenge from time to time. The domestic cat’s wild cat ancestor, the African-Asian wildcat is known to be a scavenger when needs must. And therefore, I would argue that the domestic cat has inherited this trait.

Antifreeze with bittering agent

Antifreeze with bittering agent

The answer to protect many cats from dying of antifreeze poisoning is for the manufacturers to make it smell objectionable and/or taste unpleasant. They can do the latter by adding a bittering agent. This has been discussed for many years. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t do this universally in the UK. Some manufacturers do add it (see image above). In America they agreed to add a bittering agent in 2013. The UK government has not made it obligatory to the best of my knowledge.

Online there is a petition on the website (which appears to be undated, which is ridiculous) which petitions the government of the UK and the European Union Parliament to introduce a bitterant to antifreeze. I wanted to find out whether in the UK it is obligatory for manufacturers to add bitterant to antifreeze in 2021. It appears that it is not, which is shocking. I just don’t see the obstacle.

I was prompted to write this article because there is yet another story online about five cats being killed after being poisoned with antifreeze. It is happening in an Aberdeenshire village in Scotland. It has happened over the past six months. From time to time these stories pop-up. They are ubiquitous. These are only the reported cases. It is almost certain that tens of thousands of cats are poisoned by antifreeze in many countries annually. It is time for the car accessory manufacturers to step up to the plate and do something about it.

Instead of adding a bitterant they could make it smell awful to a cat. That would not be hard. There will always be sick shits who want to kill cats. We can’t stop them but we can protect the cats.


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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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