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How Dangerous are Toxic Houseplants for Cats, Kids, and K9s?

Posted on March 21 2021

How Dangerous are Toxic Houseplants for Cats, Kids, and K9s?

If you’re a plant parent with a mile-long exotic plant wishlist, you are far from alone. However, many plants on that list are likely poisonous to people and pets. What do you need to know about plant toxicity? What houseplants are toxic for cats, kids, and K9s?

What are “Toxic” Houseplants?

Let’s get one thing squared away: “Toxic” does not necessarily mean deadly. While there certainly are “killer plants” out there, the majority are not popular houseplants. 

A “toxic” plant still purifies the air. You do not need to worry about your plant exuding toxins into the atmosphere. 

The dangers of poisonous plants lie beneath the surface. Broken stems, leaves, plant sap, or ingestion are the ways that Toxic Houseplants pose a threat to your cats, children, dogs, and any other critters you have.

What are some of the most common symptoms? Mild rash, diarrhea, vomiting, swelling, itchiness. More severe risks do exist for those who have ingested a large quantity of a toxic plant. Some of these include blindness, heart arrhythmia, and paralysis. On rare occasions, death has occurred.

Symptom type and severity often vary among individuals, just as some people have a mild allergic reaction to peanuts, while others have much more severe issues.

Why Are Some Plants Toxic?

Simply put: it’s a defense mechanism. In nature, plants have many natural predators and no means of escape. The solution? Taste awful and make everyone sick, ensuring that they don’t come back for seconds.

Producing toxins takes energy, so most plants are just mildly toxic and not deadly. This defense mechanism is to usually ward off fiendish foes, not kill them on the spot.

What are “Pet-Friendly” Plants?

These are plants that do not contain toxins and will not harm your pet if they are chewed or eaten in small quantities. Keep in mind, overeating any plant (no matter how harmless) will cause nausea and vomiting.

How Concerned Should You Be?

The reactions to common toxic houseplants are almost always mild. As stated, a person or pet would have to consume a substantial amount of foliage to reap dire consequences.

That being said, no one wants their kids, cats, dogs, and critters to be uncomfortable. So you should make your plant-purchasing decisions based on the needs and habits of your household. For instance, if your cat has a reputation for munching on your plants, it is probably best to avoid toxic houseplants.

Be Aware of Dangerously Toxic Plants

If you have young children or roaming pets, you should carefully research each specific houseplant you want to bring into the home. You can access an excellent resource on the ASPCA website, found here. There are very few plants that cause severe reactions in small quantities--but they do exist!

For example, the Desert Rose (adenium obesumhas) has been deemed a ‘dangerously toxic’ houseplant to humans, cats, dogs, and horses. In its native region of Africa, the Desert Rose was used to prepare poisoned arrows to hunt small and large game. 

This houseplant’s sap contains “cardiac glycosides,” a chemical that affects the heart, nervous system, stomach, and intestines. In the medical field, this compound is sometimes used to treat irregular heartbeat and heart failure. These drugs commonly lead to poisoning, even under supervision. 

People and pets should not eat or lick any part of a Desert Rose. If it is ingested, contact your veterinarian or practitioner immediately.

Other plants also fall into this category of ‘dangerously toxic’ plants. For instance, Foxgloves are commonly found outdoors and contain the same poisonous substance as the Desert Rose. 

How to Handle Toxic Plants

The biggest threat lies within a toxic houseplant. While you aren’t planning an “Exotic Plant Salad” on this week’s menu, a plant’s toxicity does factor into its care.

For example, Dumb Cane’s (Dieffenbachia) has tiny, needle-like calcium oxalate crystals within its leaves. Eating it is an obvious no-no: it will result in a swollen, painful mouth and even temporary loss of speech (which is where it got the name, Dumb Cane). 

Touching the sap that exudes out of damaged leaves can also be harmful, resulting in irritation, itchiness, and swelling. For this reason, it is best to wear disposable gloves when pruning or repotting a Dumb Cane plant. 

Avoid touching your face and eyes while handling a toxic plant and washing your hands before resuming normal activities or preparing food. 

The below all contain calcium oxalate crystals and cause dermatitis (a rash that features itchiness, stinging, redness, or burning). You should take precautions when handling these plants to avoid discomfort. 

  • Tradescantia
  • Philodendron
  • Agave
  • Scindapsus (such as Satin Pothos)
  • Spathiphyllum (such as Peace Lily) and more!

Know Your Plant’s Scientific Name

If a child, cat, or dog ingested a toxic houseplant, it is beneficial to know the plant’s scientific name when dealing with medical professionals. Many plants have multiple common names’ but only one scientific term to describe them. This will limit confusion and get your loved one help more quickly. 

Understanding your plant’s scientific name will help you research the toxicity of your houseplant. For instance, you’ll find out that a Golden Pothos is part of the Epipremnum family, while Satin Pothos is part of Scindapsus. While both contain calcium oxalate crystals and are thereby labeled “toxic,” you would only find that information by clearly identifying and researching your plant.

What To Do if Your Child, Cat, or Dog Ingests a Toxic Houseplant

Thing one: Don’t panic. 

While this can potentially be a problematic situation, hysteria will only make things worse. Identify the ingested plant and gauge how much of it was eaten. Call your healthcare practitioner or veterinarian with this information.

You can also call the Poison Control Helpline:

  • 1-800-222-1222 for humans.
  • 1-800-213-6680 for animals.

If the injured party suffers from a mild dermatitis reaction, wash the affected area several times with soap and water. 

How to Coexist with Poisonous Plants

This is not a doom-and-gloom article. There are plenty of plant parents out there that allow their kids, cats, and dogs to roam freely among mildly toxic houseplants. How can you find the perfect balance?

Use Your Vertical Space

Utilizing the vertical space in your home will ensure that harmful plants are out-of-reach. Remember also to keep vining plants’ tendrils away from a reachable distance. 

Putting toxic houseplants ‘up’ can still pose a challenge for cats because they climb up on tables and shelves. Consider purchasing a hanging basket that attaches directly to the ceiling, and place it far away from any “launch pads” that your kitty could spring from.

If you are worried about your plant becoming a fall hazard, invest in some Sticky Putty. It’s non-toxic and reusable. While it will not securely fasten your plant to a shelf, it will prevent it from tumbling from accidental bumps.

Once children are old enough, teach them about plant toxicity and how to handle houseplants properly. Emphasize never to place any part of the plant in their mouth. After they have been educated, you start bringing a few plants off the shelf.

“Orange” You Glad You Read This Tip

Cats and dogs have an aversion to the smell of citrus. If you want to train your animal to stay away from toxic plants, spray the foliage and pot with a mild mixture of fresh orange and water. You can even keep a spray bottle with water and orange peels expressly for the purpose!

The Sacrificial Plant

Animals instinctively eat plants. Some believe that it helps them with their digestion, but in any case, sometimes you just need to give them what they want. 

Select a pet-friendly plant to devote to your pet’s enjoyment. Cat-grass or Spider Plants do nicely, as both are non-toxic houseplants. Keep in mind, overeating any plant can cause your pet to vomit or have diarrhea. 

Daily Enrichment

We are all guilty of overeating when we are bored. It’s no different with your pet. If you find that they have continual “munchies,” purchase an enrichment toy, play with them more frequently, or enroll them in obedience class. Your plants will thank you for whatever you can do to keep your pet’s mind active. 

Choosing Pet-Friendly Houseplants

Even if you choose to go toxic-plant-free, there is still a large variety to choose from. 

  • Calatheas
  • Spider Plants
  • Orchids
  • African Violets
  • Palms (except the Burmese Fishtail)
  • Birds Nest Ferns
  • Bromeliads
  • Pileas, and more! 

Unfriendly, Pet-Friendly Houseplants

Toxicity is not the only thing to consider when purchasing pet and child-safe plants. For instance, the Bunny Ear Cactus is technically non-toxic. However, the glochids (stickers or prickles) make it a terrible appetizer for any human or animal. Keep cacti out of the way of rambunctious children and animals.

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