Tip Toe through the Toxic Tulips

Some outdoor plants are toxic to cats and dogs

May 12, 2014 (published)

It’s that time of year! Flowers are poking up from beneath the earth, the pollen count is rising, and folks are getting the bug to plant stuff and make it grow. Go, Mother Nature, go!

Of course, if it was all sunshine and roses, I wouldn’t have anything to talk about here. In fact, though, this time of year presents an awesome opportunity for our pets to get into big trouble. Come along with me for a quick tour of some favorites and how they can spell trouble for dogs and cats.

Some folks get shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve had them — they’re cute! They also contain oxalates, which are toxic. You don’t want your pet eating these things, and not just because you’ll miss the plant when it’s gone. Fortunately, it takes a pretty large amount to cause bad problems. Usually we see vomiting and drooling, but if they eat enough, kidney damage can occur.

One of the most significant dangers to our feline friends comes in the form of the true lily. Plant species from the Lilium (i.e. Easter lily) and the Hemerocallis (i.e. daylily) families will cause kidney failure and death in cats if ANY part of the plant is eaten. Really! If a cat eats the equivalent of less than one leaf, it can become severely ill. They may vomit initially then appear to be okay, but if treatment is delayed more than 18 hours, their kidneys will fail and they may die. Do NOT mess around with cats and lilies; make sure that if you have these plants anywhere on the premises, your cat cannot access them! Even getting the pollen on their fur then grooming themselves can result in a significant exposure. Alstroemeria makes a very nice substitute for lilies and is safe to have around, so go that route instead.

Other plants are also called lilies, but they are not members of this family. Read the labels if you’re unsure when purchasing a plant. Lilium and Hemerocallis are big no-nos. Plants known by the common name “lily” but not belonging to these groups include Peace lilies, Calla lilies and Lily of the Valley (although these also are toxic, just not in the same way).

Interestingly, people can eat daylilies and often put the leaves on salads. Dogs who eat them may get a mild upset stomach, but that’s it. The moral of the story here is that there are differences in how some species react to toxins. Never assume that because it didn’t make your dog sick when he ate it that it won’t bother your cat. As we say often in veterinary medicine, cats are NOT small dogs!

Why would a cat want to eat a plant like that, anyway? If you have cats, you know that a long, thin object that trails over or perhaps blows in the wind a bit can be fascinating. It must be stalked and destroyed. It’s not necessarily that they enjoy the taste; they just have fun hunting the wiggly wavy thingie! Remember that old saying, “Curiosity killed the cat?” It does occasionally have merit. Cats are too nosy and playful for their own good.

Plants that emerge from bulbs in the spring, such as tulips, daffodils (jonquils) or hyacinths, can be an issue. The bulbs themselves can cause an obstruction if a dog eats them and they get stuck on the way through. The below-ground part of the plant is also significantly more toxic than the leaves and flowers, which tend to cause only mild stomach upset. As they say, though, “The dose makes the poison,” so pets that eat larger quantities of the above-ground bits are more at risk for trouble.

Other plants found in gardens this time of year contain compounds that affect the hearts of animals that ingest them. Included in this category are foxglove (a gorgeous, showy flower that bees and hummingbirds adore and they aren’t affected by it), Lily of the Valley, oleander, azaleas, rhododendrons, laurel, yew . . . the list goes on and on.

There are a handful of plants that are typically thought of as houseplants in most regions but can be found out of doors in some climates, so they bear mentioning as well. While Dieffenbachia’s effects are rarely life-threatening, Cyclamen, Kalanchoe and Sago palm ingestion can have far more serious consequences and you must prevent exposure to these plants. I once met a miniature Schnauzer who had eaten part of the base of a Sago at his former home in Texas; with aggressive emergency veterinary treatment he had survived the initial exposure, but his liver was badly damaged and he was not expected to survive in the long term. It was frustrating not to be able to help that little guy live a long, happy life.

Always, ALWAYS remember that just because a human can eat something safely does not mean that your dog or cat can get away with it. Like the lilies discussed above, garlic and onions don’t even make people blink, but if Fido eats them, that’s a different story. If a dog or cat eats a significant amount of something yummy, such as the caramelized onion dip I make for parties, it can actually destroy their red blood cells. That is a bad situation! When green, garden vegetables such as potatoes and tomatoes contain toxins that will cause pretty nasty gastrointestinal upset when eaten raw. Potato vines, the above-ground bit of the plant, are worse than the potatoes themselves, so beware.

There’s no way to provide an exhaustive list of toxic plants here. These are just some of the things that show up in springtime and early summer, and you’ll note that I have barely mentioned houseplants here. It would be a good idea to look up the plants you (and your neighbors) have in order to know what dangers might be lurking just outside your door. That could be extremely important information if your pet decides to dine on the local flora. Not everything out there will cause harm to your pet, but you need to identify the ones that can and take appropriate precautions. Without question, it can make the difference between life and death.

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