July 06, 2018

Code Green: The Risk From Toxic Household Plants

Ingesting certain plants can be deadly for dogs and cats. Here’s what you need to know to educate your clients and keep your patients safe.
By Don Vaughan
Many common household plants, such as aloe, can be toxic to pets.

When 20-month-old Jessie started vomiting, her owners, Catherine and Bruce Campbell of Wilmington, North Carolina, were puzzled. The rambunctious golden retriever hadn’t gotten into dinner scraps, and nothing seemed out of place. The Campbells went to bed assuming Jessie would be better in the morning.

But Jessie wasn’t better. In fact, she had become so lethargic that the Campbells rushed her to Hanover Regional Animal Hospital, where John Manolukas, DVM, PhD, referred them to a specialty hospital in Cary, 2 hours away. The doctors there started treating Jessie for shock and questioned whether she had gotten into an ant nest or a bee hive or had eaten candy containing xylitol. Finally, the veterinarian asked whether the Campbells had sago palms in their yard. They did, several of them. Bruce went out to check and found that Jessie had chewed up numerous budding fronds.

Jessie was given plasma transfusions because she had started bleeding out of her anus. Once she was stable, the Campbells returned with her to Wilmington, where Dr. Manolukas continued treatment. But nothing worked. “We saw Jessie on Saturday, and I could see that she had turned yellow from jaundice,” Catherine said. “My husband had left the room, and Jessie let out a huge puddle of blood. It was very disturbing. I had worked as an administrator at a veterinary hospital, so I knew what was happening. I was hoping they could save her, but the sago palm destroyed her insides. She died the following Monday.”

Although he has been a professional landscaper for more than 20 years, Bruce Campbell, like most pet owners, had no idea that sago palms are extremely toxic to dogs. As a result of their experience with Jessie, the Campbells immediately had every sago palm removed from their property. In an effort to educate others, Catherine created a brochure about the risk, which she hands out to the pet owners she meets while walking. “I just want people to be aware so they don’t go through the same thing we did,” she said.

The sago palm is just 1 example of the many popular plants that can be toxic to pets if ingested. According to Tina Wismer, DVM, DABVT, DABT, medical director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center in New York City and master gardener, this plant was once found only in warm regions of the United States, but miniature sago palms are now sold at many nurseries and home supply stores, giving pets even greater access to a deadly plant. “Sago palms usually are not labeled in stores, so people will buy them not knowing how toxic they can be,” she said. “It’s important that pet owners do some research before bringing a plant into their home or new plants to be used for landscaping.”

Increasing the risk for family pets is the common misconception that dogs and cats intuitively know which plants are OK to chew on and which are not. Such is not the case, said David Dorman, DVM, PhD, DABVT, DABT, professor of toxicology at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh. “Owners don’t quite appreciate that animals are just like us—they don’t know what’s good for them; they don’t know which plants are toxic,” Dr. Dorman explained. “Pets are just as ignorant as we are.”

Plant Poisoning Statistics

Just how common are cases of toxic plant ingestion? According to Dr. Wismer, plant ingestion comprised 5.4% of the more than 199,000 calls received by the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in 2017. “That’s more than 10,700 calls for the year, or around 29 calls a day,” Dr. Wismer reported.

Dogs and cats, because they commonly explore their environment by chewing or licking, are the largest patient cohorts in terms of plant ingestion calls, Dr. Wismer added. “They make up probably 96% of our cases. The next largest group is rabbits, followed by birds, which get into houseplants if allowed to fly inside the home.”

Sign up to receive the latest news in veterinary medicine.

Latest Issue

Client Education

October Client Handout

American Veterinarian