Q: My friend’s dog died from eating a toxic houseplant. How do I make sure there are no hazardous plants in my house, and what do I do if my dog eats a poisonous plant?
A: My dog Lulu prefers to eat books or the occasional shoe. Fortunately, those items tend to move through her system without incident. I’m the one who poses a greater risk to our houseplants. If only I knew how to keep them alive more than a few days.
Unfortunately, thousands of dogs fall ill as a result of accidental poisoning, which can be expensive or even deadly. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.org) operates a poison control hotline that handled about 167,000 cases from frazzled pet owners last year. While an overwhelming majority involved pets consuming chocolate, quite a few cases involved accidental exposure to human medications, insecticides and toxic plants. Here are a few steps you can take to protect your pets from accidental poisoning from plants.
1. Keep emergency information handy.
The ASPCA’s online poison control center contains extensive information about potentially dangerous household items. Staff at a 24-hour hotline (888-426-4435) also can help tackle issues for a $65 consultation fee. But Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director of the organization’s poison control center, says that your best bet may be a little closer to home.
“The most important thing to have is your veterinarian’s phone number,” Wismer says, noting that pet owners also should know where their vet refers clients for emergencies. “If they have after-hours [facilities] or send clients to an ER clinic, we will always want you to call your vet first before we do anything at home.”
2. Place dangerous items out of paw’s reach.
Don’t make it easy for pets to access potentially dangerous items. Set plants on high shelves and use nontoxic fertilizer to keep them healthy. The same applies to medication or human food. Avoid leaving plates unattended because some pets can be pretty crafty. Daisy, my sister’s dog, consumed barbecue dinners, checks and even M&Ms that had been placed on low coffee tables.
3. Learn to identify potentially toxic plants.
Wismer says sago palms (pictured above) and lilies are two of the most poisonous houseplants. Lilies are poisonous to cats and can cause kidney failure, while the sago palm can cause liver failure in cats and dogs. She also warns against purchasing plants that contain calcium oxalate crystals such as dieffenbachia or philodendrons.
“They have crystals that look like little needles,” she says. “An animal bites in and needles get pushed into their tongues and gums, causing drooling, vomiting and mouth swelling.”
Other plants and fungi that are poisonous to pets are listed here. For those who lack the green thumb, Wismer suggests spider plants, which are nontoxic and pretty tough to kill. She also notes that hype over poinsettias being poisonous is overrated. “They can cause mild vomiting, but that’s all we expect.”
4. Create a pet first-aid kit.
In a previous column, I offer tips to create a first-aid kit for your pet. The list of must-have items includes gauze and activated charcoal. Dr. Jennifer Coates of the Home to Heaven in-home pet hospice and euthanasia service in Fort Collins, Colo., says, “In some cases you can induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide, but I would never recommend having someone do that without talking to a vet,” she says, stressing your veterinarian’s role in determining proper dosage levels. “Some poisons you make worse rather than better with vomiting. Also, a turkey baster or syringe without a needle will help to squirt it into the back of the mouth.”
5. Create a pet emergency fund.
Accidents happen, even when we take great pains to protect our pets. It helps to create an emergency fund with enough money to cover expenses. Or consider pet insurance, which can significantly reduce out-of-pocket costs.
“A cat that I saw had chewed on Easter lilies in the house around Easter time and went into kidney failure,” Coates says. “It was almost two weeks before she was stable enough to go home, and the bill was sizeable for that case. It was a success story — and the owners were able to cover the cost of her care — but I’m sure they would have liked to have insurance to help with that bill.”
VPI Pet Insurance and TruPanion are two popular insurance companies that offer an assortment of coverage plans. Kroger grocery chain also has entered the market with plans that start at about $10 a month. While not as complicated as human health insurance plans, pet insurance policies can significantly reduce costs for accidents or illness, but most do not cover pre-existing conditions. Also, insurance rates are higher for older animals. Consult with your veterinarian to identify a plan that meets the needs of your pet and your pocket.