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The popular houseplants posing a deadly danger to pets

Virginia Fallon05:00, Oct 02 2022

It was a strange sort of walk that tipped Merry's owners off something was very wrong with their cat.

The few times she’d vomited earlier in the day hadn't worried them too much, but later in the evening the way she stumbled uncoordinated across the lounge set alarm bells ringing.

“We actually thought she’d had a stroke or something wrong with her brain,” Suzanne says of the indoor cat she adopted from the SPCA nearly two years ago.

Pets and plants have long been important members of many New Zealand homes, but the two don’t always live together in harmony.

And just as the pandemic and Instagram have seen the popularity of houseplants – and their prices – soar, experts warn our green friends can pose a deadly danger to our furry ones.

Hayley Hunt, veterinary pathologist at Massey University, says plant poisoning is generally less common than that caused by rat bait, snail bait or chocolate toxicity, although cases may go unreported or under-diagnosed as the signs can be subtle.

Essentially, the problem is some plants contain toxins that when eaten can cause a wide range of issues from a mild mouth irritation to gastrointestinal issues, and even fatal damage.

Of the latter, Hunt says true lilies pose the most dangerous risks to cats.

“Within a few hours of eating lily leaves or flowers, licking pollen, or even drinking water the flowers are in, cats can lose their appetite, become lethargic and vomit.

“These types of lilies also damage the kidneys, and within 12-24 hours cats can become very ill and may start to drink and urinate more. In severe cases, this can lead to kidney failure and be fatal.”

Signs of serious poisoning can include vomiting and diarrhoea (sometimes with blood in), drowsiness, weakness, and seizures. The toxin in sago palms causes liver damage that can lead to abnormal bruising and/or bleeding and yellow discolouration of the eyes and/or gums.

Suzanne doesn’t want to use her last name, fearing she’ll be labelled a “bad cat owner”. She sometimes worries she is, because while she’ll never be entirely certain of what poisoned Merry a year ago, one of her beloved houseplants was the most likely culprit. That was what the vet both suspected and treated for, and the most important thing is the cat survived.

The vet bill came to nearly $1500 and the episode prompted Suzanne to get rid of almost all her houseplants; better safe than sorry, she says.

Kerri Murray of Southern Cross Pet Insurance has been on a bit of a crusade about the danger some plants, and particularly lilies, pose to pets.

“Lilies are the worst thing you can have around a cat; not only is the plant toxic but so is the water from the vase.”

A former veterinary nurse, Murray says the company recently paid out $1400 for a pet poisoned by a lily, and she goes as far as advising pet owners throw the plants away.

“Leaves fall off all the time and all the cat needs to do is rub itself against it and that’s enough to cause issues. Just don't have them; they’re that dangerous.”

Southern Cross pays about $500,000 annually towards vet bills for pets who ate something they shouldn’t, and while poisoning by plants isn’t as common as things like slug bait, it’s something that’s happening more often.

And when it does, it’s an emergency. In serious cases IV fluids are used over a long period to flush the animal’s system and blood tests are run to monitor kidney function.

“No questions asked, go straight to the vet.”

That’s advice Hunt firmly agrees with, saying if you see or suspect your pet has eaten a poisonous plant the best thing to do is contact your vet.

“With plants that can have serious effects like lilies, don’t wait to see if your cat gets sick, as seeking vet care early can make a big difference to the outcome.”

If owners notice an animal chewing on a leaf or flower they can try and remove it from their mouth and encourage them to drink water to rinse out their mouth. Water from canned tuna or chicken can sometimes tempt cats to drink, she says.

Small amounts of milk or yoghurt can help soothe mouth irritation, but it’s important owners don’t try to make an animal vomit.

Hunt also cautions it’s not just legal plants that can harm pets. Cannabis toxicity is also common in dogs, although often it’s that they’ve eaten something with it in, rather than the plant itself.

Ten toxic houseplants to avoid if you have pets

Oleander (nerium oleander). Pink-flowered and fragrant, this shrub is extremely poisonous to people and pets. Oleander can cause serious illness or even death if ingested.

Lilies (lilium). The air-purifying qualities of peace lilies make the plant popular, but it’s one best avoided for households with pets, especially cats. All members of the lily family are highly toxic to cats and can cause organ failure. Be careful of bouquets containing them too.

​​​​Philodendrons. Originating in the jungles of Central and South America these plants are toxic for cats and dogs if consumed, causing swelling of the mouth and vomiting.

Monstera deliciosa: Wildly popular, these guys are also toxic to cats and dogs. The popular ‘Swiss Cheese’ plant can cause intense burning and mouth irritation in pets.

Aloe vera. Often used as a traditional herbal remedy for humans, this succulent has a mild-to-moderate toxicity level for dogs and cats. It can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and tremors if eaten.

Snake plants (dracaena trifasciata). Also called Mother-in-law’s Tongue, this tough houseplant needs to be kept well out of the way of pets. It can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea if ingested.

Ficus. Including the ever-popular fiddle leaf fig and rubber tree, this group of plants contains insoluble calcium oxalates that can cause oral irritation, drooling, vomiting and difficulty swallowing if consumed.

Jade plants (crassula ovata). These guys are also known as money plants, which is what you’ll need if your pet eats them. Although it’s unknown just what makes jade plants so bad for animals, they can cause vomiting, depression and incoordination if consumed.

Madagascar dragon tree (dracaena marginata). This plant contains saponins – a toxic compound that can make pets sick. If ingested, it can cause vomiting (sometimes with blood) and drooling in cats and dogs. Cats can also suffer from dilated pupils if they’ve nibbled on a dragon tree. Yucca, a similar-looking tree, also contain saponins.

Sago palm (cycas revoluta). Sago isn’t actually a palm, but a cycad which can be lethally poisonous to dogs due to a toxin called cycasin. This causes abdominal pain, seizures, coma and liver failure. Over in Australia, the sago palm is one of the Animal Poisons Helpline’s most reported dog poisonings.

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