I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, but from time to time I still wonder at my own stupidity. Okay, maybe "stupidity" is too strong of a word, but a few years ago I had an experience that made me give myself a big ol’ dope slap.
I am not much of a plant person. My care-giving tendencies are focused on people and animals; I just can’t get that worked up about a plant. But, when I needed an inexpensive way to fill in two corners of a newly renovated room I thought, "Houseplants, great idea." I moseyed on over to the nearest home improvement box store and bought a couple that looked like they’d fit the space and environmental conditions. One of them was a sago palm.
Now, before those of you who know about this plant start thinking that I am perhaps the least competent veterinarian on the planet, this all occurred before news about how toxic these little beasties are became widely available. Yes, if I had thought to do so, I could have looked them up and learned all that I needed to know, but, obviously, I did not think to do so (hence the aforementioned dope slap).
In my defense, sago palms naturally occur in hot states like Texas, California, and Florida, and I have never practiced in those areas. It wasn’t until this species became popular as an ornamental houseplant that poisonings became a widespread problem.
The Pet Poison Control Hotline has this to say about sago palms
All parts of sago palm are considered poisonous, with the seeds (nuts) being the most toxic part of the plant. Sago palm contains cycasin, which is the primary active toxic agent resulting in severe liver failure in dogs. Ingestion results in acute gastrointestinal signs (e.g., drooling, inappetance, vomiting, diarrhea) within 15 minutes to several hours after ingestion. Central nervous system signs (e.g., weakness, ataxia, seizures, tremors, etc.) and severe liver failure can be seen within 2-3 days post-ingestion. Clinical signs include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, inappetance, abnormal fluid accumulation in the abdomen, abdominal pain, jaundice, and black-tarry stool. Aggressive decontamination and treatment should be initiated. Even with aggressive treatment, the survival rate is about 50%.
I should add that cats, horses, cattle, and people can also become sick after eating any part of a sago palm.
Thankfully, none of my human or nonhuman family members ever became sick from contact with my impulse buy, which was subsequently dumped in the garbage in a sealed plastic bag. The potential danger could have been avoided if I had only done a little research. Both the Animal Poison Control Center and the Pet Poison Control Hotline are excellent resources for determining which plants are and are not safe to maintain around pets.
I bring this story up simply to demonstrate that if a veterinarian can inadvertently put her pets at risk in this way, so could you. The next "sago palm" (i.e., a plant people have never heard of until pets start dying from it) may already be on the shelves of a store near you.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Composite using images from Madlen and Matthew Benoit / via Shutterstock