24 January 2011

Cats and poisonous plants, part one: Indoors

An off the cuff Twitter conversation with a friend of mine the other day prompted me to create a public service post for my cat-loving readers. She hadn't known that so many plants, both those grown indoors and those in our gardens, are toxic to cats. I've written about this before, but it bears bringing to other cat-loving plant people's attention on a regular basis.

Cats do like to get into things, although usually those are food-related items such as cans of soup. Yes, this is Mungus. If someone is doing something bad in our house, it's usually Mungus.

Disclaimer 1: I am not a dog person, so I don’t tend to think about what dogs might do. However, I do strongly advise that people with dogs exercise even more caution with plants, both indoors and in the garden, as they’re more apt to try a plant that isn’t good for them than cats are, at least in my experience. Disclaimer 2: I am not a veterinarian, and all information posted here is drawn from talking to veterinarians plus my own research over the years.

Anthuriums should be kept well out of reach of curious kitties.
Why do cats chew on plants? My answer to that is the answer I use for many things pertaining to cats—because they can. Maybe because they’re bored, mischievous, curious; maybe they’re lacking something in their diet.

Hyacinths, tulips, lilies, narcissus are all highly toxic to cats. 
There are varying degrees of plant toxicity: some will cause a little nausea, diarrhea or drooling, much as some of ours do when we give them their regular worm medication. Others are much more serious, causing renal failure, depression, inability to eat or drink, heart failure, and ultimately, death.

What should you do to protect your cats from toxic plants such as clivia, another lily relative?
The tubers of cyclamen, like bulbs of lilies, clivia, etc, are especially toxic, causing heart arrhythmia, seizures, and death if consumed in large enough quantities.

Indoors, if you’re a person with a lot of flowering or foliage plants, try to put them places where the cats can’t easily get at them. I have a cycad up on top of my filing cabinet, and a plumbago that one of our finds quite irresistible in another (relatively) inaccessable location. I've never had a cat try to eat begonias, cyclamen, zonal geraniums (pelargoniums) or amaryllis, but it's still good to be cautious.
The common zonal geranium (Pelargonium) can cause vomiting, depression, and even anorexia. These plants are quite pungently scented, and that seems to deter my furry brood from even checking the plants out.

If you have cats that are intent on chewing on plants, you might want to grow some cat grass for them, particularly in winter; a number of seed companies sell packaged grass seeds that are safe for cats to dine on. I've done this and had the furballs eat the grass quite happily.

I personally don't recommend trying to grow catnip indoors because if you have hardcore catnip addicts like we have, they'll eat it right down to the roots...climb up on anything to reach the pot, or chew through a bag to get at it. Hardcore, I tell you. (Mungus is eating a big dried flower clump of a type of catmint here. When he escapes from the house, he heads for this plant every time.)

Both calla lilies (Zantedeschia) and Caladium can cause intense irritation of the mouth, lips, and tongue, as well as vomiting and problems swallowing.

Outdoors, the answer is easy: don’t let your cats outdoors unsupervised (the birds and other wildlife will thank you, and the cats will thank you for not letting them get hit by vehicles or attacked by coyotes, etc), or else put them in an enclosed area where there is only pesticide-free grass or other non-toxic plant material. If you’re able to harness train your cat, that works fine as well. In all the years we have had cats, including many former cats who used to go outdoors unsupervised on our rural property, we’ve never had one try to eat something like hellebore, monkshood, delphinium or lilies, all of which I’ve grown for years.

The tubers of begonias are the most toxic part, but the foliage could be very tempting for a naughty kitty to try.

The American SPCA has a very good list of plants that are toxic as well as a list of non-toxic plants to cats on their website. It lists plants by a common name, with more common names and the botanical name included in the category, but you may not necessarily call a plant by the same common name as your neighbour down the road or in another province/state. Both lists are on the same page, which is a bit annoying--you need to scroll down about halfway to find the plants that aren't toxic.

Some of the more dangerous plants include:
Lilies of all kinds, including Easter lilies and Oriental lilies as cut flowers
Amaryllis, hyacinths, clivia and other lily-relatives.
Sago palm (aka Cycad)
Cannabis. Yes, that plant. I could care less about whether people use it or not, but it's extremely poisonous to cats.
Indoor (ornamental, evergreen) azaleas
Ivies such as Hedera helix
Hydrangeas (the puffy blue or pink ones so popular around Easter.)

Always do some research to find out whether that plant you're tempted by is a good one to have in the house with naughty furball friends. I suppose the same goes for children, but this isn't a mommee blog! 

 However, you still might want to think about locations with the houseplants: I have numerous (nontoxic) African violets (Saintpaulia) around the house, and if they’re in a window easily visited by the cats, the plants invariably look like lint-rollers, festooned with cat hair in a variety of colours, but commonly orange, white and grey. They ignore the (highly toxic) amaryllis sitting beside the violets, but they rub up against those silky African violet leaves every time!

If you suspect your cat has eaten a poisonous plant, call the ASPCA poison control  (in the USA, 1-888-426-4435or your local veterinarian immediately. (If there's a Canadian counterpart with the SPCA, I can't find it, so Canadians, call your veterinarian! ) Take a leaf or flower of the plant with you when you go to the clinic, in the event that you're uncertain about the plant's identity.


  1. Diana Webster, DVM24 January, 2011 17:00

    As a feline veterinarian I've seen cats die from renal failure caused by nibbling lily plants. Thank you for this excellent educational blog.

  2. catnip...ha ha I grow it in the garden and when I come inside if I have even brushed by it.. the cats go nuts!
    good post

  3. Dear Jodi, This is a most thorough posting which is essential information for any cat owner. Sadly, my two cats have now both died and, as you say, survived well as they were supervised when outside. In that way one can continue to grow Aconites and yet know that one's pet is not in harm's way.

  4. Great info. A neighbor's cat has adopted us and loves my garden. Can't blame it, but in a way, I am annoyed that I'm having to be careful about what I plant so the cat stays safe. I did plant an ornamental grass last year and kept wondering why it wasn't thriving. Then I discovered the kitty had been eating it!

  5. There are so many of them. I did not realize either. When I saw the cat eating out of the can I thought about this summer when I saw a dog running around with its head fast in a can. It was running blind trying to get it off and couldn't. The neighbors got it off finally. I felt so sorry for it.Who would have thought about something like that happening? So I hope your kitty doesn't get its head fast.

  6. I am currently being owned by one stray cat....I rarely see him/her but she/he is eating the cat food which I put in the garage. Love cats and I hope to make friends with Campbell some day. That is because he/she did have a soup can stuck on its head from the recycle bin.

  7. Thanks Jodi for so much information. I have four cats but one in particular is always chewing on my spider plants. It's amazing the plants are still alive, let alone the cat. Luckily she hasn't been sick from it and is a picture of health. My Boston fern has got to go as she plays Kung Fu kitty with the leaves as they hang down. Some cats just never grow up!

  8. A great reminder to think about all of the inhabitants of our house when in the garden. Luckily (or not) for me, my cats are the indoor type. This leads to regular attacks on houseplant. That with the fact that I regularly kill inside plants leave me having all but 2 in my house. Sad huh.

    Anywhoo, great post! I thought I'd let you know that my blog has moved. I'm not blogging over at www.FlorabyLaura.ca check it out when you have a moment!

    Have a great week!

  9. Great post Jodi. Although dogs are perhaps more brave when it comes to trying new things, and nibbling on things they shouldn't, the trouble with cats is they are significantly more sensitive to the oxalates found in plants in the Lilaceae and Aracae families. I think all pet owners should familiarize themselves with the worst offending plants.

  10. I know there are times that Luna will gnaw on a plant. The worst thing that has happened is that she gets diahrrea. UGH... Makes me so made. I can't figure out why she does this from time to time. Thankfully this winter she hasn't dined on anything.

    Caticant is word verification. Ha..

  11. Too many people do not realise that a great many garden and house plants are not only toxic to cats but all animals, people included. That is no reason to shun the beautiful plants, just to take care in handling them and ensuring good hygiene routines like covering your skin when cutting back Oleander for example and washing your hand and being careful not to rub your eyes before your hands are clean.

  12. This a great service you provided to cat owners. Everyday I find something new my one cat had tried for a snack. They have cured themselves of nibbling on houseplants though and I am guessing a bellyache was the reason. Doesn't stop them from digging them out of their pots. Maybe that can be your next post, cat etiquette.

  13. Excellent information, Jodi! This is my excuse for not having houseplants:) Seriously, though, I have avoided planting a few very toxic plants in the garden because of Sophie, our dog, but I've found our cats show little interest in nibbling on any of the plants, other than catmint. The worst indoor incident occurred last year, when I found a Christmas stocking on the floor one morning, with its contents all spilled out--I had put some catnip-filled mice toys in it for the cats. Needless to say, Santa waits to fill the pet stockings until the last minute now:)

  14. Great post, Jodi. The only things my indoor kitties chew on are the ones that resemble grass. Simon started chewing on a ponytail palm a couple of weeks ago and it promptly caused vomiting. I put it up out of his way. He will also chew on Sansevieria, but doesn't eat it. Strangely, every Christmas he chews on the artificial Christmas tree limbs.

    The outside cats only bother the catnip and ornamental grasses, as far as I can tell. I'm guessing that the outside cats innately know which plants aren't good for them, as I've not seen any evidence of them being sick from anything plant-related, nor have I caught them eating anything bad for them. Perhaps we're just living on luck here...

  15. Thank you! My daughter is a veterinarian and gets so upset when cats are brought in and sick from eating a plant that shouldn't have been in their reach! One of the plants that my cats like is peppermint. Seems to act like catnip on them and seems to keep fleas away without using medicine. Haven't had a flea for 15 years since growing it in my garden and we have a lot of cats!

  16. As a small animal and exotic veterinarian I have known several cats that have suffered kidney failure from eating lilies. One lived a very long life with dedicated and loving pet parents who gave her the fluids she needed to live every day under her skin. Not all kitties who eat these plants are so lucky.

    Thank you for helping make people aware of the dangers to their cats.

  17. Jodi thanks for the great information! Do these rules of toxic plants also apply to dogs as well? We just inherited my daugther's puppy for a while until she can live in a place that allows animals. Also I enjoyed your post on "pink" a couple weeks ago, so I put my own twist on the color of the year 2011 in my lastest post. Go check it out when you have a few minutes.

  18. Briefly poking my head in, as I'm dealing with computer problems;Thank you all for your comments. I'm glad to be of some use, and especially happy to help out our veterinarians.

    Ramona, I am not a dog person, as I say in this post, so I can't provide information about dogs. Different types of animals react differently to different plants, the same as we have different allergies, etc. The plant list on the ASPCA site should be of some use to you, however.

  19. Jodi, great article. My cat is indoors all winter now since moving east and has promptly taken up chewing on my houseplants. A quick check on the list provided made sure the plants I have aren't toxic. I've never had an issue with outdoor plants, as long as there's grass to chew on the cats aren't really interested in my garden.

  20. Mungus is a beautiful cat, Jodi. I'd say a-mung-us! ;-) If one is going to have a pet, it's good to have all the important information!! Happy 2011! (How's the snow up your way?)

  21. Good info, although I wonder why the alley cats around here never die from eating plants. Are strays smarter than indoor cats?

    Not related, but when I was a kid my neighbor's cat died after eating tinsel. It was one of the saddest Christmases I've ever experienced.

  22. I read your post with interest, even though we don't have a cat, because my husband is allergic to them. Before we figured that out, we had a brother and sister, who had very different personalities and preferences. The male ignored plants, but the female would shred plants and dump the dirt. I got very upset, because I was very much into houseplants at the time.

    I recognized some plants that we also need to watch young children around.

    I love the photo with Mungus's head in the can. Our dog, Heidi looks for opportunities to get into the garbage, and if we left a can like that in her reach, she'd have as much of her face in it that would fit, too.


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