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Houseplants "Poisonous" to Pets

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

A. The first thing I would try is an offering of 'cat grass'. All pet stores carry this very simple product—essentially just some grass seed and dirt that you pour into a pie plate, water till the sprouts come up and then put out in front of your house plants. There's nothing very special about it—you could certainly 'make your own' with some ordinary grass seed and dirt; just don't use seed that's been treated with anything. Most cats will greatly prefer the taste of this lush new growth to your plants; keep sprouting a fresh run every few weeks and kitty can graze happily without harming your houseplants.

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

If kitty proves to be a particularly tough sell, spray the plants with a pet repellent, a home-made or store-bought hot pepper product, and/or surround each plant with stakes or tall chopsticks before you reintroduce them. Again, have lots of cat grass at the ready—and maybe add a catnip mouse, little pink sock or other chew-able diversion. And stay tuned—I plan to revisit the cat vs. houseplant issue later in the year, with suggestions from an animal behavior specialist on how to handle particularly persistent kitties.
This time out, however, I mostly wanted to use this question as an opportunity to learn more about the actual dangers houseplants pose to inquisitive kats and kiddos, i.e.: Exactly which ones really are dangerous to pets and children what might nibble away at them? There's a lot of suspicious, questionable and just plain bad information out there on this topic. So I called Dr. Lisa Murphy, assistant professor of toxicology for the New Bolton Center of the famed University of Pennsylvania 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 this famed "poisonous plant's" terrible reputation was an error, based entirely on one very old piece of bad information. The sap can be an irritant, she explained, but the plant itself is not poisonous.

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

And cats ARE curious creatures, she agrees; they really seem to enjoy sticking things in their mouths and nibbling on them to see what they'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 contain insoluble calcium oxalate crystals.  These sharp, needle-like crystals explains Dr. Murphy, aren't poisonous, but being crystals, cause a very uncomfortable localized irritant reaction in the poor kitty's mouth and/or belly. (The taro, or Elephant ear, is the best-known outdoor insoluble crystal-containing plant.)

If your cat is drooling or otherwise seems in distress after nibbling on 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 the crystals pass through.

…Unless you use pesticides on your houseplants, that is.  If you do spray your plants with poison or use chemical fertilizers—especially those fertilizing plant stakes or spikes—and your kitty seems ill after nibbling, call your vet or a poison control center immediately. Dr. Murphy suspects that that a lot of reported "plant poisonings" are actually reactions to pesticides and fertilizers, which she warns are much 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 kitten in the house who was proving to be especially mischievous, and her houseplants—and Christmas tree—had been under attack for days. Her professional response, she revealed, was "loud noises and water". She says she's become "a big fan of water pistols."

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