by Joelle Steele

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Many common house plants are poisonous when eaten. Fortunately, most cats are pretty smart and will not do any serious nibbling on these plants in the first place. This is because in addition to being toxic, the majority of these plants contain chemicals which make them extremely bitter and unpleasant in taste.

But, if a cat does happen to unwittingly eat a poisonous plant he may experience a variety of symptoms. Such common plants as chrysanthemum, weeping fig, and poinsettia can cause a rash on contact with the skin or mouth. Greater irritation or swelling of the mouth, tongue, and lips can develop from contact with Boston ivy, colodium, croton, dieffenbachia, philodendron, pothos, and syngonium.

Cat and daffodils

Candy always liked to lay in the daffodils bed, but she never showed any interest in eating them.

Some plants may cause more serious problems such as vomiting or abdominal pain and cramping. With elderly felines and weaker individuals, ingestion of these plants may lead to tremors, heart or respiratory failures or irregularities, and may even cause kidney problems. The culprits in these instances are amaryllis, asparagus fern, azalea, bird of paradise, creeping charlie, crown of thorns, elephant ears, ivies (i.e., glocal, heart, needlepoint, and ripple), jerusalem cherry, and umbrella plants.

The most toxic plants tend to be those which we grow outdoors on our patios and balconies, sometimes bringing them indoors when they are flowering. Common plants like daffodils, delphinium, foxglove, ground cherry, holly, horse chestnut, larkspur, monkey pod, poke weed, privet, skunk cabbage, soap berry, wisteria, yews, and a variety of fruit trees, can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, or vomiting when swallowed by unsuspecting felines. As with most cases of poisoning, the older and weaker cats as well as kittens are at greatest risk.

Cat and orchidsTwinkle, like all my other cats, used to hang out where my orchids were, but she never took a bite out of them.

But, the real danger with any plant lies not so much in the leaves, but in the soil which cats may dig in. Most plants are grown in commercial greenhouses where different kinds of insects, mites, worms, etc., must be repelled or destroyed in order for the grower to sell attractive-looking plants. These growers use concentrated foliar fertilizers along with many systemic insecticides and fungicides which are applied to the leaves of plants and are then washed into the soil by the overhead watering systems (if they were not applied directly to the soil in the first place). When you bring a plant home from your local garden center, rinse it off carefully and flush water thoroughly through the soil to remove as much chemical residue as possible.

If you regularly bring plants indoors from your garden, you may also be unintentionally bringing potential soil-bound hazards into your home in the form of ring worm, round worm, or ear mites. As a rule of thumb, don't bring outdoor plants inside without first cleaning them very thoroughly.

If you suspect that your cat has been poisoned, by a plant or any other substance, contact your veterinarian and your local poison control center immediately. In many cases you may need to induce vomiting and then prevent, or at least delay, the absorption of the poison from the intestinal tract by coating it with activated charcoal and later with sodium sulphate or Milk of Magnesia. If those are not available you can try milk, egg whites, or vegetable oil. In either case, you should proceed only on the advice of your veterinarian. If your cat is unconscious, is not breathing, is experiencing convulsions or seizures, or is showing any signs of neurological distress, you should take him to the veterinarian at once, and whenever possible, bring a sample of whatever your cat has eaten or vomited.

If all this sounds scary and you feel tempted to toss out all your plants, please be reassured. I have a house full of plants, many of which are of the toxic or poisonous variety, however, none of my cats have never shown any interest in my crotons, dieffenbachias, or philodendrons. But, they have been relentlessly nibbling away at my non-toxic rhapis palm and my calatheas for years. My advice to plant and cat lovers is to exercise caution with any new additions to your cat family, whether they are adults or kittens, until you become familiar with their green eating habits. That way, you can enjoy a safe home filled with both feline and plant friends.

This article last updated: 01/08/2012.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.