Summer is the time to let pets play outside, whether at the park, on walks down the street or letting them roam in the backyard. But don’t do so without taking some precautions.
Many plants can be poisonous to animals. Whether the animal eats them or simply licks them, poisonous plants can cause sickness or even death to these important members of the family.
“There are certain chemicals in plants that the plant produces,” said Nathan Wilson, manager and lead horticulturist at Lanier Nursery and Gardens in Flowery Branch. “Just like our bodies produce certain things, plants do the same and those chemicals the plant produces can have adverse side effects on animals.”
It’s not just house pets that can be affected. Certain species of milkweed, for example, that are highly valued as host plants for monarch butterflies, are extremely poisonous to pets and range animals like sheep, cattle and goats.
People new to small-scale or urban farming, especially in rural parts of Hall County, may not be aware of these dangers. Apart from the typical plants seen in homeowners’ yards, the roots and seeds of cabbage and broccoli can trigger digestive problems in pigs. Rhubarb and tomato leaves can cause neurological damage to rabbits. Iris rootstocks can result in breathing problems and scours in cattle.
Even free-ranging chickens aren’t immune. Among potentially toxic poultry pickings are castor beans, whose seeds produce the deadly toxin ricin, and certain mushrooms, although chickens don’t eat them as readily as do other animals.
“At this time of the year, the biggest thing I see is acorns,” said Dr. Denise Funk, a veterinarian with Animal Medical Care in Gainesville. “What they do is sit and chew on them. We see obstructions where they end up swallowing it. And the outer layer of the acorn has a chemical in it that irritates the (gastrointestinal) tract, so in a lot of cases, it upsets their tummies, too.”
The way these poisonous plants affect animals is directly related to dosage and what part of the plant is eaten, Wilson said. Other factors that play into it are the type of animal, how healthy it is and how long the toxins persist.
“Understanding which part of the plants are most dangerous is important,” Wilson said. “A lot of these plants, most people have, but knowing if the leaf or berry is most dangerous will help you determine how to plant with it.”
For example, Wilson said every part of azaleas, oleander and English ivy are dangerous for animals, while just the leaves of foxglove are toxic. The berries on holly can be harmful, as the leaves and flowers of lilies and the bulbs of daffodils.
“All of this is not to discourage from gardening or planting,” Wilson said. “But we just need to be aware of some of these side effects plants may have.”
Animal poisoning can be tough to diagnose, especially since some of the trouble can come from simple house plants. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, refusing food, blistering and skin lesions and dizziness. Funk said the first signs usually are vomiting and diarrhea.
“It’s a pretty routine question,” Funk said. “If they come in with a routine upset stomach, it’s normally because of house plants.”
She said pet owners “just don’t think” about house plants, so it’s common to see lillies cause issues for pets. But if they eat enough of any house plant, she said it will make them sick anyway.
The worst time of year for indoor pets is Christmas.
“Poinsettias and mistletoe are the worst,” Funk said.
That’s why Wilson said it’s important to think about each plant when deciding where to plant or place it. He recommends pet owners check to make sure the plants they have near pets aren’t dangerous. If they are, or if a homeowner wants to get some for aesthetics, he said to make sure to put them in areas animals may not go.
He also recommends using hanging baskets or planter boxes when possible to keep the plants out of reach of animals. Funk said there are even small, safe-to-eat indoor gardens made for animals who like plants.
“I would just be sure to check any plants,” Funk said. “Just double check for toxicity, and don’t bring them in the house if they are.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.