BY PAM JOHNSON-BENNETT
With the arrival of warm weather, so too comes our desire to shake off the doldrums of winter by surrounding ourselves with bright, luscious plant life. Whether in our home, on our patio or in the garden, flowers and plants help connect us to nature and offer a sense of wellness, beauty and life.
But when we share our homes with pets, it’s also vital to ensure that we are not putting our animal companions in danger. After all, pets are often tempted to chew or eat all sorts of plants, and many of them—though beautiful—can be deadly. That Easter Lily you’re tempted to put on the table? Don’t do it.
For cats in particular, the biggest concern lies in houseplants, as kittens and even adult cats can develop a habit of munching on forbidden greenery. Although it may seem innocent enough, many plants are poisonous to cats. The effects can range from minor irritation to death. Hanging plants may create even more enticement for your cat to play with and bite it. Some cats that don’t have enough environmental enrichment may play with and nibble houseplants out of boredom.
The Deadly 17 and Other Poisonous Plants
Because there are so many plants that are toxic to your pet, I strongly recommend doing your homework before bringing any type of plant or flower into your home or yard. My favorite resource is the listing of toxic and non-toxic plants provided online by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Although there are too many to name here, the ASPCA specifically lists these 17 as the “most poisonous plants for pets”:
Tulip / Narcissus Blub
Azalea / Rhododenron
There are some common plants, such as the dieffenbachia, that can cause intense burning and swelling of the tongue after just a few small bites. This can lead to difficulty in breathing. I see these plants included in many gift arrangements. In fact, several gift arrangements containing the highly toxic plant were sent to our house by well-wishers when my television show premiered. As much as we appreciated the gesture, we ended up taking all the plants to a local nursing home.
It’s important to make sure all potentially dangerous plants are kept completely out of reach. Some plants can cause immediate death no matter how quickly you get help, so know the plants you have and remove the ones that are risky. If you are going to keep plants in any indoor or outdoor area to which your pets have access, make sure you know the names of them in case immediate identification is needed during a crisis, and do your best to keep them out of your pet’s reach.
Signs and Treatment of Plant Poisoning
Many symptoms of plant poisoning will depend on the type of plant your pet ingested. Some signs may include:
Difficulty in breathing
Mouth and throat ulcers
Red, itchy skin around the mouth
Likewise, treatment depends on the type of plant ingested. If you can’t identify the plant, take it or a piece of it to your emergency veterinary clinic, as they may be able to identify it. While your veterinarian isn’t necessarily a garden expert, you stand a better chance of helping your pet if you bring the plant with you so they can attempt identification.
If you think your pet has chewed on a poisonous plant, contact your veterinarian immediately. If it’s after hours, head to an emergency animal hospital (local ones are listed on page 31 of this magazine), or call the ASPCA’s Poison Control Hotline (also listed on page 31; there is a fee involved for phone help).
Once at a clinic, your veterinarian may induce vomiting, depending on the type of plant. Activated charcoal may also be given to absorb the poison. Additional tests may be administered to determine the extent of any organ damage. Your pet may also be put on fluid therapy.
If you’re unable to get to the veterinarian or emergency clinic, depending upon the type of poison, you may be instructed to induce vomiting. Don’t do it on your own unless you’re instructed to because, in some cases, vomiting will cause burning and irritation again—as would be the case with the dieffenbachia plant. In some situations, you may be instructed to use milk to coat and soothe the intestines. Again, do not attempt anything unless you have been instructed to do so by a veterinarian.
Keeping Your Cat Safe
In our house, we’ve decided that it’s not worth the risk, so we live by a simple rule: no live plants in the house. If you do decide to keep plants or have chosen to only keep the ones that aren’t deadly, make sure you coat them with a bitter anti-chew spray to discourage chewing. You can find these sprays, made especially for plants, at your local pet products store. Spray the plants, including the undersides of the leaves. Wear disposable gloves or be careful not to get any on your hands—that bitter taste is not something you want to experience! If you spray the plant indoors, protect your floors and carpets by putting newspaper down around the plant first. You may have to do a repeat spray in a couple of weeks.
Keep hanging plants cut short to reduce kitty’s temptation. When it comes to plants near windows, keep in mind that cats tend to love sunning themselves at the window and watching the birds outside. To reduce temptation, make sure your cat has several safe, plant-free window-lounging locations. Put a window perch at your cat’s favorite window or locate a cat tree nearby. Finally, redirect your cat’s interest to more interesting things.
If your cat’s plant nibbling is happening out of boredom, step up the environmental enrichment. Here are some examples:
Conduct interactive play sessions at least once a day
Incorporate the use of food-dispensing toys
Rotate toys to keep them interesting
Put out some boxes or open paper bags toys inside
Get a sturdy cat tree place it by a window
Keep a lid on the stress level in the home
Provide safe chewing options such as cat dental chew products
You’ll find links to these ideas and products on my website.
Growing Safe Greenery for Your Cat’s Nibbling Pleasure
Of course, sometimes, it’s fun for your cat to nibble! If you want to offer your kitty the option to gnaw plants, consider growing kitty-safe greens. You can buy these kits at your local pet product stores. You can also buy a patch of rye, wheat or oat grass at your local organic food store or you can grow your own from seeds. (Unless you gave an organic lawn, don’t use grass from the yard, due to the chemical fertilizers, weed killers and pesticides it may contain.)
Pam Johnson-Bennett is a certified cat behavior consultant and star of the television series Psycho Kitty airing in the UK on Animal Planet and in Canada on Nat Geo Wild. Her new column, “The Feline Kind” appears in each issue of Nashville Paw. Pam is the best-selling author of seven books and owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company based in Nashville. For more information, visit her website at catbehaviorassociates.com.