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Poisonous Plants and Your Cat

By: Ed Kane

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Plants are attractive to cats. Though they're strict carnivores, cats seem to like the texture of certain plants, especially those that have grass-like leaves or fine texture, such as baby's breath, fine ferns and dried flowers. Some plants, such as the Easter lily, are serious poisons. Most will at least act as an emetic, which means your cat will vomit soon after eating. Other plants can lead to kidney or liver failure, seizures, or even death.

Most animal species learn to stay away from items that make them sick. Cats will eat plants over and over again with the same consequences. They never seem to learn that certain plants make them sick. Do they eat them knowing plants are an emetic or do they just get sick when they eat them without anticipation? We may never know, and if your cat just loves plants, it may be best to plant some "cat grass," a generally innocuous grass, to allow them some "grazing" time. Even these grasses can cause vomiting in some cats.

Beware of Possible Poisoning

In order to treat a plant-poisoning problem, it's important for you and your veterinarian to know specifically what plant your cat consumed. Since both common names and scientific names are used, make sure the identity is correct. If you're unsure, it might be good to go to a nursery or florist or bring the plant to your veterinarian for identification.

Though some plants are attractive, others aren't. According to Dr. Patricia Talcott, toxicologist, University of Idaho, the only plants cats seem to have an aversion to are those that contain insoluble calcium oxalate, such as elephant ear (Colocasia), philodendron and dieffenbachia (dumbcane). Don't assume that all cats are the same, however. Some seem to have a preference for this toxic substance. "We had cases of cats attracted to shamrock plants, which contain soluble oxalate and cause severe renal problems. I am not sure if they ever learn," she stated.

Ingestion of most plants, even if not seriously poisonous (like lawn grass or spider plants) causes gastrointestinal upset and vomiting. Common plants that are also poisonous are flowers such as amaryllis, daffodils (Narcissus), iris, hyacinth and honeysuckle. Azalea, rhododendron and hydrangea can be extremely toxic.

Some of the more dangerous plants are castor bean, foxglove, lily-of-the-valley, Japanese yew and oleander, which, in addition to vomiting, cause heart problems and possible death. One castor bean seed may kill. Christmas trees, pine needles and even water from around the base of Christmas trees can be poisonous, produce oral irritation, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, trembling and posterior weakness. Poinsettias aren't seriously poisonous, though they can cause GI irritation and vomiting. Mistletoe is deadly.

According to Talcott and Dr. Robert Poppenga, toxicologist, University of Pennsylvania, the plant family that causes serious problems – but is often left off many lists of poisonous plants – are lilies, including the Easter lily, tiger lily and star-gazer lily. Among flowers, leaves and stems, it's most often flowers that are eaten. Dr. Talcott cautions, "This is a major cause of acute renal failure in the cat."

Creepy Crawly Poisons

Certain toxic insects, spiders and animals can be harmful to cats. Rattlesnakes, copperheads and coral snakes are common to the Southwest. Toads of the Bufo species, common to Florida, are very poisonous. Like certain snakes, the venoms from these animals affect the nervous system.

Bufo toad poisoning symptoms include drooling, head shaking, rapid heartbeat, muscular weakness and vomiting. Bufo toad toxin, stored in sacs around the neck and eyes of the toad, can kill a cat within an hour. In the southeast, the blue-tailed lizard or skink is a common but deadly plaything for cats. Spiders, including black widows and brown recluses, cause neuromuscular problems or severe tissue injury with a single bite. The wounds they leave are difficult to heal and can become infected.

Fire ants, wasps and bees can sting and cause pain and swelling, as well as anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can adversely affect breathing.

In order to protect your cat from possible poisoning, it's important to make sure you do the following:

  • Keep known poisonous plants/toxic items out of your cat's reach.

  • Watch for plants/toxic items that have been chewed on.

  • Watch your cat for symptoms of poisoning.

  • Take your cat to your veterinarian immediately if you suspect he has consumed a poisonous plant/toxic item.

  • Take a sample of the plant/toxic item with you to your veterinarian.

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