Sago palm poisoning cases increase

Ornamental plant becoming popular nationally

Published: April 07, 2010
By Phyllis DeGioia

Sago Palm
Sago Palm

Poisoning cases from a toxic plant called the sago palm are appearing across the United States because the plant most commonly seen in southern states is now sold in big box stores and gardening shops nationwide.

A pet can die within hours of ingesting the plant.

“It used to be that we only got calls from places like Texas, Florida and California, but about three years ago we started seeing cases pop up other places. The dog would eat the plant they just bought, owners would bring dog in, and the veterinarian would say ‘I've never seen this plant before.’ They would e-mail photos to us,” says Tina Wismer, DVM, ABT, ABVT of the ASPCA Poison Control Center and a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) toxicology consultant.

No statistics are available on the perceived rise in poisoning incidents. Wismer attributes the increase not only to the plant's widening regional availability but also to the public's growing awareness of the plant’s toxicity.

The sago palm is a cycad and contains cycasin. Even very young plants are toxic enough to cause death in animals. Dogs and cats are susceptible, as are horses, cows and people. The seeds are the most toxic component.

Clinical signs include vomiting, melena, icterus, increased thirst, hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, bruising, coagulopathy, liver damage, liver failure and death.

“The death rate is about 30 percent, although that includes euthanizing due to lack of money for treatment,” Wismer says. “If we can get them before they go into liver failure, start them on liver protectants and give activated charcoal, they'll have a much better prognosis.”

The entire plant is covered with razor-sharp spikes and sold as potted houseplants at such stores as IKEA, Target and Lowe’s. It can reach nearly 30 feet in height. Some owners believe that the spikes will deter pets from eating the plant, but that's not always the case. Wismer notes that some dogs will eat anything.

The plant’s appeal to pets was the topic of a recent VIN discussion, where one veterinarian writes: "I swear, it seems to me that dogs are attracted to sago palms. In the cases of toxicity I see (several each year), it seems to be the only plant in the yard the dogs chew on. ... I think we need to be more proactive in trying to warn owners they should not have these plants at all."

Another veterinarian on VIN adds: "It's amazing how many owners are unaware just how toxic the plants in their yard or house can be. I saw a patient last year with acute liver failure 36 hours after the owner had been playing fetch with the patient using a sago palm seed pod instead of a ball. He didn't make it. Very sad case."

Most people are unaware that the plant is toxic, and even if they are, they often don’t realize that a plant is a sago palm when they purchase it.

“There's no label on these plants, they'll just say palm tree,” Wismer says.

In cases where poisoning from eating a sago palm is suspected, Wismer advises practitioners to question clients about whether their pet came in contact with a miniature palm tree.

Sometimes patients recover from acute effects of the poisoning but may die a month or so later of related liver failure. “This is most likely due to fibrosis during the healing process,” Wismer says.  “We think what happens is that these pets go into liver failure, and the liver heals as it does with fibrosis, which decreases the functioning mass of the liver. It becomes a chronic condition, like alcoholism.”

The ASPCA Poison Control Center lists toxic and non-toxic plants on its Web site.

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