Here's a riddle for you and your cat. What's mostly green, grows in a decorative pot and looks great on the coffee table? You say, "Houseplant." Your cat says, "Dinner!"
Indeed, Tina Wismer, DVM, medical director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Poison Control Center, says one of the most common calls to the center concerns a cat making a meal of a houseplant or some flowers. In the wild, cats probably ate plants and flowers as a source of fiber, so if your cat licks his lips at the sight of a potted plant, he may be responding to this genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, the wrong bite can include more than fiber for your feline.
Many plants are toxic to cats, and reactions can vary from mild irritation of the mouth and gums to vomiting, seizures and even death. This doesn't mean you have to strip your house of all greenery. You just need to be aware of the plants that can harm your cat.
Particularly Poisonous Plants
Some plants are more toxic than others, and Dr. Wismer suggests that cat owners be particularly aware of the dangers associated with these common houseplants.
- Lillies (Lilium spp). Although the toxin involved has not been identified, one bite of a leaf or a taste of the pollen from a plant in the lily family can cause lethargy and vomiting within 12 hours of ingestion. If not treated, your cat may go into kidney failure.
- Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta). Once exclusively an outdoor plant, the sago palm has recently begun making an appearance on windowsills and coffee tables. The entire plant is poisonous to cats, but the seed pod, sometimes called the nut, contains the greatest amount of toxin. Just a few nibbles can cause vomiting, diarrhea and even seizures. If left untreated, cats can experience liver failure.
- Calcium Oxalate plants. These include dieffenbachia, philodendrons and Chinese evergreens to name just a few. Insoluble calcium oxalate, microscopic crystals that look like needles, is present throughout these plants. One bite and the needle-like crystals shoot into a cat's gums and tongue. Symptoms include drooling and vomiting. To reduce irritation, give your cat milk or other calcium-containing substances, such as ice cream or yogurt. If enough mouth swelling occurs, breathing could become difficult, but this is rare.
- Dracaena. Over 40 species are included in this family of popular houseplants, including the red-edged Dracaena, the dragon plant, and the Dracaena Janet Craig. Cats that eat the long, skinny fronds that are typical in the Dracaena plant family will vomit, sometimes with blood, become depressed and lose their appetites. Kittens can get a little wobbly and appear to be drunk. Luckily, these plants are not usually lethal and symptoms should disappear in 12 to 24 hours.
If your cat decides a houseplant is put to much better use as food than as decoration, your first step should be to call your vet. She will want to know what plant ended up in your cat's stomach. Use a smartphone or digital camera to take a close-up picture of the plant and email it to your veterinarian for identification. If you're not sure which plant your cat has gotten into, get your pet to your vet as quickly as possible so that the vet can observe any symptoms for clues.
If the plant is toxic, your vet may suggest inducing vomiting at home or giving your cat activated charcoal capsules. Activated charcoal, which can be purchased at a pharmacy, binds to toxins while still in the stomach, preventing absorption into the blood stream.
It's a good idea to have activated charcoal on hand for emergencies, but Dr. Wismer warns never to attempt any home remedy without contacting your veterinarian first. Making a cat vomit or swallow pills can be tricky, and activated charcoal capsules are not as concentrated as the liquid version used by veterinarians. Getting to the vet should be your priority. If something as toxic as a lily is ingested, expect your cat to be placed on intravenous fluids for a couple of days to flush out the toxins.
The ASPCA's Web site has a comprehensive list of toxic and non-toxic plants. The center is also staffed with veterinarians available to answer questions if you suspect your cat has ingested a poisonous substance. The 24-hour emergency poison hotline number is 1-888-426-4435. A fee is required but may be well worth it for your peace of mind or your cat's life.