Springtime is a welcome sight for most Brits. We can put the winter behind us and it brings warmth and colour back into our gardens and homes. It’s also mostly good news for our pets as they’re hopefully able to enjoy more quality time outdoors. Many owners are aware of the dangers of spring treats such as chocolate easter eggs, or raisin filled hot cross buns, but dangers lurking in the form of plants and flowers are often unrecognised. We spend 2 billion pounds a year on cut flowers and indoor plants, with Mothering Sunday and Easter being at the pinnacle and the heart of spring. While lots of plants and flowers are safe, it’s important to be aware of those that are not.
Cats are notoriously fussy about what they eat, so plant toxicities are not common. Curious kittens or bored indoor cats may be most at risk of chomping down on a toxic feast. Outdoor cats are usually too preoccupied to eat plants, but may brush up against them, grooming off toxins later. All plants can cause gut irritation and vomiting, even grass. Dogs however are less fastidious.
What can I do?
It is impossible to fully eliminate risk in free roaming cats, and dogs off the lead, but understanding what common plants are toxic may help you minimize risk by not planting potentially harmful plants, and knowing when to act if you see your pet in contact with one that’s known to be poisonous. When gardening, take care with bulbs as these are often the most dangerous part. Dogs love digging and those freshly planted bulbs may be too tempting, so always supervise them after planting. Don’t leave clippings or gardening waste around – this may be tempting to roll in for both dogs and cats.
Indoor risks can be eliminated just by knowing which plants are toxic. Bored indoor cats may chew on a toxic plant such as dumb cane, or a vase of lillies. As well as not allowing these plants into your home, providing stimulation may help, and if they insist on chewing greenery, provide a safer alternative like grass.
Many garden centres and supermarkets label plants and flowers that may be harmful to pets. If in doubt, take down the name and check with your local vet or online. Try to identify any plants in neighbouring gardens and note down their names too. This may help your vet should poisoning be suspected.
Which spring flowers are toxic?
Here we will look at common springtime flowers, but given the most toxic part of the plant is often the bulb, keep bulbs out of reach all year.
- Daffodils are synonymous with spring. The yellow flowers contain a poisonous alkaloid that can trigger vomiting if eaten. The water that cut daffodils have stood in may have the same effect. Ingestion of the bulbs containing very toxic crystals can be more serious, leading to cardiac arrhythmias or respiratory depression. The toxin lycorine is bitter, so less appealing to cats.
- Tulips and Hyacinth bulbs contain allergenic lactones which, if swallowed, can lead to vomiting, diarrhoea, mouth irritation, increased heart rate and rapid, difficult breathing. Although the rest of the plant is toxic it is usually only when large quantities of bulbs have been scavenged (by dogs) that the more serious signs are seen.
- Snowdrop bulbs are toxic to pets. The rest of the plant is also toxic but contains lower levels of toxin. Usually signs are mild with vomiting and diarrhoea, but incoordination, slow heart rate and fits can be seen, with large quantities of bulbs.
- Azalea/Rhododendron contain grayanotoxins, which disrupt sodium channels in the heart and muscles, and are toxic to dogs and cats, even if just a few leaves are eaten. Gut signs, abnormal heart rhythms, weakness and low blood pressure can occur as well as neurological signs such as tremors and depression.
- Bluebells contain natural cardiac glycosides that can affect the heart. All parts of the plant are toxic. Signs reported in pets after ingestion are vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. More serious cardiac signs only seem to occur in grazing animals. Foxgloves, found wild in hedgerows and verges, flower in the summer and, if ingested, can lead to similar but more severe signs.
- Cyclamen is a popular houseplant, and outdoor plant that can flower in spring. It contains irritating saponins. Eating the plant usually leads to mild signs of sickness and diarrhoea and drooling. In large quantities it may affect the heart.
- Iris and gladioli, geranium and hydrangea can cause irritation when eaten by dogs or cats. The most toxic part is the bulb.
- Rhubarb leaves, and the leaves of other food plants, may cause contact irritation, sneezing, sore eyes and gut signs.
How common are poisonings?
Most scenarios involve dogs digging up bulbs or finding a stash, and gobbling them up. Minor ingestions may not cause severe enough signs to be noticed, or diagnosed, so may be under-reported.
The most common cat plant poisonings come from ingestion of indoor plants and flowers. 1 in 5 plant poisonings in pets involve cats and lilies. Despite it not being a spring flower this needs a mention.
Certain types of lilies are very toxic to cats, and can cause kidney damage. Ingestion of just a few leaves, water from the vase containing them, or grooming pollen from the fur can be potentially fatal.
If your cat has been in contact with a lily, seek urgent veterinary advice. Lily poisoning can cause long-lasting kidney damage and potentially death. There are some non-toxic lilies out there, but the best rule is: NEVER have lilies in a feline household.
Many other house plants, such as amaryllis, and dumb cane, and flowers such as chrysanthemums, should be avoided in households with cats.
If in doubt, find out the name of the plant and contact your vet or the Animal Poison Line, a service launched 2 years ago acts as a triage system to help owners know if a trip to the vet is needed.