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Houseplants "Poisonous" to Pets

Q. Hi Mike: How can I keep mycats from chewing on the leaves of my houseplants???
I'm concerned for my beautiful plants, but I'm also afraid the catswill get sick. Please help!! Thanks so much,
                       ---Lydia; Baton Rouge, LA

A. The first thing I would tryis an offering of 'cat grass'. All pet stores carry this very simpleproduct—essentially just some grass seed and dirt that you pour into apie plate, water till the sprouts come up and then put out in front ofyour house plants. There's nothing very special about it—you couldcertainly 'make your own' with some ordinary grass seed and dirt; justdon't use seed that's been treated with anything. Most cats willgreatly prefer the taste of this lush new growth to your plants; keepsprouting a fresh run every few weeks and kitty can graze happilywithout harming your houseplants.

If, however, your cat treats this new attraction more like an additionto the buffet than a permanent substitution, temporarily move theplants to an inaccessible area, fence them off with something likecardboard or window screens, or cover them with a big blanket. Then putout several plates of cat grass and gradually reintroduce access to theplants after some time has passed.

If kitty proves to be a particularly tough sell, spray the plants witha pet repellant, a home-made or store-bought hot pepper product, and/orsurround each plant with stakes or tall chopsticks before youreintroduce them. Again, have lots of cat grass at the ready—and maybeadd a catnip mouse, little pink sock or other chewable diversion. Andstay tuned—I plan to revisit the cat vs. houseplant issue later in theyear, with suggestions from an animal behavior specialist on how tohandle particularly persistent kitties.
This time out, however, I mostly wanted to use this question as anopportunity to learn more about the actual dangers houseplants pose toinquisitive kats and kiddos, i.e.: Exactly which ones really aredangerous to pets and children what might nibble away at them? There'sa lot of suspicious, questionable and just plain bad information outthere on this topic. So I called Dr. Lisa Murphy, assistant professorof toxicology for the New Bolton Center of the famed University ofPennsylvania Veterinary School, who dispelled quite a few myths.Poinsettias for instance.

It was right before the Christmas holidays when we spoke, so of course,poinsettias came up. And when they did, Dr. Murphy explained that thisfamed "poisonous plant's" terrible reputation was an error, basedentirely on one very old piece of bad information. The sap can be anirritant, she explained, but the plant itself is not poisonous.

In fact, she explained that very few plants commonly kept in the homeare poisonous in the true sense. The big exception is another 'holidayplant', one commonly found on a lot of dining room tables in theSpring: The innocent looking Easter lily. Dr. Murphy explains thatEaster lilies are incredibly toxic; all parts of the plant can causekidney failure, she warns—even the pollen from its flowers. (Maybethat's why they're such a popular funeral home flower!) So keep Easterlilies out of the house if you have curious children or pets.

And cats ARE curious creatures, she agrees; they really seem to enjoysticking things in their mouths and nibbling on them to see whatthey're like, which can often lead to an upset stomach or diarrhea.Especially if the object of such nibbling is a calla lily,philodendron, dieffenbachia, or other houseplant whose leaves containinsoluble calcium oxalate crystals.  These sharp, needle-likecrystals, explains Dr. Murphy, aren't poisonous, but being crystals,cause a very uncomfortable localized irritant reaction in the poorkitty's mouth and/or belly. (The taro, or Elephant ear, is thebest-known outdoor insoluble crystal-containing plant.)

If your cat is drooling or otherwise seems in distress after nibblingon such plants, Dr. Murphy says to offer them a little milk or yogurt;just a little, not a lot. This will soothe their stomach and help thecrystals pass through.

…Unless you use pesticides on your houseplants, that is.  If youdo spray your plants with poison or use chemical fertilizers—especiallythose fertilizing plant stakes or spikes—and your kitty seems ill afternibbling, call your vet or a poison control center immediately. Dr.Murphy suspects that that a lot of reported "plant poisonings" areactually reactions to pesticides and fertilizers, which she warns aremuch more dangerous than most plants. Those chemical fertilizer spikes,she adds, are especially nasty.

Oh, and when we spoke, Dr. Murphy mentioned that she had a new kittenin the house who was proving to be especially mischievous, and herhouseplants—and Christmas tree—had been under attack for days. Herprofessional response, she revealed, was "loud noises and water". Shesays she's become "a big fan of water pistols."

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath

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