Tips from your neighborhood cat lady: the six deadliest plants for your pets

June 27 | Guest post by Elizabeth
Welcoming cat
Photo by tanakawho. Used under Creative Commons license.

Whether you're trying to keep your cat from killing a houseplant or you're deerproofing your garden, most people think of plants as delicate beings in need of defense. But some plants — even common, unsuspicious looking plants — are trying to kill your pet, even if your pet doesn't munch them.

Last week, my cat Rosie had a brush with death in the form of an innocent-looking lily she didn't even try to eat. Rosie simply stuck her face in a lily, came out covered in pollen, and found herself rushed to the vet. Happily, she's back home now — after spending two days at the vet's getting her system flushed so the poison couldn't damage her kidneys. Rosie was very lucky, but I wish I'd simply known to keep poisonous plants out of our home.

Oleander

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This shrub in the dogbane family is one of the most poisonous plants in the world: leaves, flowers, stems, bark, nectar, you name it. Despite this, it remains a commonly cultivated plant in yards, more unusually in bouquets.

It comes in many colors and is commonly seen along California highways, where it's planted because it is drought resistant and "deer resistant." As little as 0.23 mg per pound of body weight can kill most animals. Offbeat Mamas beware: This plant is not just toxic to animals. One leaf ingested could kill a child, and more can kill adults.

Dieffenbachia

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Many people keep this tropical plant because of its ability to survive with minimal sunlight. Dieffenbachia has been used to make poison arrows in the amazon. Also called "dumb cane," diffenbachia has earned this name from its sap's mouth-numbing properties. If sufficient amounts are swallowed, a swelling of the throat can cause difficulty breathing, and in higher quantities it can cause liver and kidney damage and death. Offbeat Mamas beware: This plant is just as dangerous for teething toddlers as it is for pets.

Lilies

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As Rosie's story illustrates, lilies are exceptionally dangerous, and not just because of their high toxicity. Because of their prominent stamens, cats can ingest a deadly amount without even a nip of flower petal.

Some people swear their cat would never eat a flower, but who can guarantee their cat won't stick their face into something new and intriguing?

Interestingly, cats' kidneys are unusual in being unable to break down toxins in lilies, meaning the flowers are not nearly as toxic to dogs and most other animals, though they're no joke.

Sago Palm

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This cycad is filled with a poison that attacks the liver. Fatality rates are high, as symptoms can take 12 hours to develop and many pet owners don't suspect their pet is in any danger until symptoms appear. Sago palms are especially dangerous because many animals seem to find them appetizing. Offbeat Mamas beware: This plant can be just as deadly for children.

Yew

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All parts of this conifer are poisonous, especially to horses, for whom a very low dose can be fatal. Symptoms include tremors and are often missed altogether, with their quick onset leading to heart failure. If you suspect a pet or child has ingested yew, don't wait to see. Offbeat Mamas beware: this plant is poisonous to children as well.

Azaleas/Rhododendron

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While not as toxic as most other plants on this list, azaleas and rhododendrons can still be dangerous, and they are everywhere. Many pets who get into these shrubs suffer only vomiting and diarrhea, but some pets experience heart problems and can even die.

And a few plants safe for everyone

Now that you're sufficiently scared of anything and everything — and plan on checking all your plants — let's talk about a few go-to safe plants.

Maybe you've gone to the store, thinking of bringing home a bouquet, but forgot to look up something safe. Remember: Even non-toxic plants can be made toxic if they are sprayed with pesticides, so I recommend opting for organic plants. But pesticides aside, roses, sunflowers, most orchids, and violets are common flowers that are nontoxic to your cat, dog, ferret, rabbit, miniature horse, child, and just about whoever else. Additionally, basil, cilantro, rosemary, and sage are among herbs on the safe list, meaning a windowsill herb garden can still be part of a pet-friendly household.

Please visit the ASPCA Poison Control Center for a more comprehensive guide. And remember, it's easiest to limit your pet's exposure to poisonous plants, but if that fails, early treatment can save your pet's life. It's best to err on the side of caution, because if your pet is very old, very young, pregnant, has a compromised immune system, or is just unlucky, even a plant listed as "mildly toxic" could be a big deal.

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  1. Great post! Someone just identified a 'dumb cane' plant in my house – luckily it's been in a high-up place even though I had no idea about it. Also — apparently healthy adults can get adverse effects if nibbled on! Not sure why any healthy adult would take a bite out of a plant, but…

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    • Glad you caught it! Yes, dumb cane can still hurt adults, but even if you have a adult house guest who chews on it (for whatever reason), they're likely to stop once they realize it makes their mouth a little numb before anything serious happens. We can't always could on the same sense from children and animals.

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      • I work with adults with developmental disabilities and mental retardation and I've seen just about everything go into their mouths. In arms reach= in the mouth.

        Also, there have been studies linking high IQ to high curiosity. Many people with high intelligence end up with drug problems because they just wanted to know what the high was like. I imagine curiosity about what a plant tastes like can lead to issues.

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        • I stand completely corrected. Thank you for speaking up.

          On the second point: I am not a chewer of strange plants, but I am a fidgeter, and feel a large portion of people are, regardless of age. While I probably wouldn't chew on dieffenbachia, I might very well fidget with a nearby oleander and then put my hands in my mouth later. So, yes, for all different reasons, adults can still be susceptible.

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          • I fidget alot too. Not a genius, either but I still have random curiosities. Even if i know something is a bad idea… Just can't always help myself.

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  2. When kitten-proofing my house at the beginning of the year, I came across a list of plants poisonous to cats that was a mile long, listing everything from aubergine to cannabis, but without telling WHY or HOW they are toxic. (Not to mention why I would be feeding my kittens veg or letting them roll joints).

    This was informative! Thank you!

    3 agree
    • Isn't that annoying? I finally found a good list this spring, when I wanted to bring irises in from the garden. They're listed as poisonous on EVERY LIST — but I finally the ASPCA's list. Turns out only the below-the-soil bits of irises are poisonous to cats.

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    • And the worst part, I find, is that "toxic" can mean anything from "potentially may cause sneezing" to "DEATH ON A STALK!"

      We've had azaleas and rhododendrons in our yard for years and not a single animal of our's has touched it (well, the dogs pee on the azaleas to the point of killing it, but still.) I had no idea that lilies could cause these problems, and they're (as far as I know) rarely listed on "dangerous to animals" lists.

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      • Right? That's the scariest, the 500 item long lists with no weight given to which ones are more dangerous than others. I tried to list some of the most dangerous, but this shouldn't be taken as a "Well, I don't need to worry about all the others".

        Azaleas and Rhododendrons are the obvious odd man out in this list for sheer toxicity, so I'm not terribly surprised you haven't had any problems. Some pets (more on a case by case than species basis) don't have serious problems with them, but some do, and they're so common. So while it's less common for a particular run in with a rhododendron to be tragic, run ins are more common, so serious run ins are still a risk. Follow me?

        Lilies and cats are always serious, I'm alarmed if lists you've been finding are leaving them out.

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  3. Wow! I didn't know any of this! I used to work at a grocery store floral dept. and we sold tons of lilies, dieffenbachia, and azaleas. I wish I'd known to tell people about the toxicity.

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  4. My wonderful, dear, loving boyfriend knows I LOVE stargazer lilies, so he thought it'd be sweet to get me an easter lily in a pot last year.

    Unfortunately, my younger cat also thought it was a pretty sweet treat. He nommed down on a full leaf while I was at work, and only vomited up a small bit of it. I rushed him to the hospital because of the vomiting – it sounded painful and was bloody, but I had no clue what was causing it the first time around. They handed me a packet of "poisonous plants" at that visit, as something they've decided to to do for all people who visit from then on. I looked through it, saw the easter lily on it, and then put two and two together…

    He ended up spending 4 days at the hospital, getting his poor belly pumped, waiting for it to vomit out and finally waiting for him to feel like eating is an ok event again.

    I really actually recommend all people posting here to ask their vets to do this very same thing – make a list, list which parts of the plants are poisonous, list the common symptoms, and be sure to include an emergency off-hours number or vet location. The vet will look thoughtful, and we'll save more precious fur-children!

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    • I'm so sorry you and your cat had to go through that! Rosie was lucky enough that I saw her stick her face in, and the moment I saw her reflexively lick the pollen off I thought "What if that's bad for her?" and looked up the flower, so we got her in before she started showing symptoms. I can't even imagine what a panic I would have been in if she'd been throwing up blood.

      What a smart idea! I wish all vets had such a list, or even better yet, that florists had signs.

      3 agree
  5. Thank you for this amazing list! I love stargazer lillies, but did not know they could be poisonous to my kitties. Thankfully, even with all the times we've had them around nothing adverse has happened to either of them. I'll play it safe from now on.

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  6. This is actually a huge relief. I haven't purchased ANY plants because I was afraid of bringing anything in without checking on it's toxicity levels. My grandma just made me a pot specifically for growing violets, and my dad gave us an herb garden stater set. Those were the only plants I wanted and it looks like I get to have them. Woo-hoo!
    To be safe I just tell people not to get me plants that are associated with holidays and that I want a low-floral wedding.

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  7. Ah! I had no idea about the lilies! Thank you thank you thank you for posting this and preventing me from planting them within reach of my cats.

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  8. I'll be honest, the whole lilly this is really upsetting to me 🙁 They're my favorite and while I wasn't sure if I'd own cats in the future, my FHs love of my cat kind of answers that question. Thankfully, though, I think it'd be fine to have them outside the house in a garden if your cat is an inside cat, correct? Where we live makes more sense to keep our cat inside, anyway, so, that works.

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  9. Another very common toxic plant that people don't often know is toxic is pothos. Its vining habit and penchant for thriving on neglect make it very appealing, but if it's eaten my pets or kids it's bad news.

    1 agrees

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