Visiting Vet: Poisonous plant exposure

Rapid ID is essential if your pet ingests a questionable plant.

Spring flowers may cause illness if ingested by a pet. — Melissa Mullin

Ah, Spring. Pinkletinks sing. Gardeners plant peas. Easter and Passover are right around the corner. Any day now I will start getting calls about cats poisoned by lilies and dogs by chocolate bunnies. Nobody has trouble identifying chocolate, but what about when a pet ingests a plant or fungus? Is that mushroom Coco the cocker ate poisonous? Is that blossom Flower the cat chewed toxic? Determining the danger with plant exposure cases is often more challenging than with chocolate ingestion. For chocolate, the main concern is the toxicologists’ adage: “The dose makes the poison.” In other words, no problem if your 200-pound mastiff eats a single Hershey’s kiss. Big problem if your tiny chihuahua eats a handful of semisweet chocolate chips. But all an owner has to do is identify the type of chocolate (milk, semisweet, baker’s, etc.) and the amount (how many ounces or grams). Then a veterinary toxicologist can calculate if the dose is dangerous, and advise an owner whether to seek emergency help.

Plant and fungus ingestions are different. Accurate identification is much harder than reading the label of a Cadbury bar. And the toxicologist’s adage does not always hold true. For example, exposure to even the smallest amount of any part of a lily plant, even a dusting of pollen, can cause fatal kidney failure in cats. If you own a cat, do not have lilies. Do not plant them. Do not buy them. If someone sends you a bouquet, remove every lily. Put them securely in the trash. Clean up every speck of pollen that has fallen on the table. If Flower does get exposed, don’t think she is OK simply because you do not see any signs of illness. Clinical symptoms can take days to manifest, and by then it is too late. If Flower has even the tiniest bit of lily exposure, please seek immediate veterinary care. These patients need to be hospitalized for a few days of continuous intravenous fluid therapy and monitoring of renal function.

What about other blossoms in that bouquet or plants growing wild outside? In the past, owners would sometimes arrive at my office with a bunch of flowers and greenery in one hand, and a sick cat (in a carrier) in the other. I would sit with a pile of horticulture books and see if I could identify the plants. I would send owners to the florist to ask for their help. Nowadays there are better options. Although there are “plant identification” apps available, most specialists feel these are not very accurate, and therefore potentially dangerous if being used to determine the risk of toxicity. Those apps are great if you want to name that pretty flower on your morning walk, but if we need identification for medical purposes, here’s a better option.

Poisons Help; Emergency Identification for Mushrooms & Plants. This is a Facebook group staffed by volunteer international experts. If Flower nibbles the floral arrangement, or Coco consumes mushrooms or strange berries off a bush, this is the place to go. Start by taking photographs of the plants or mushrooms involved. Put a coin or ruler in the field to give an idea of scale. Get a variety of well-focused pictures from different angles. You can then post photographs to the group, giving all of the following information. Start with your location, including the state and country, using no abbreviations. Write it out completely: Chilmark, Massachusetts, United States. Many of the participating specialists are not from the U.S., and will not be familiar with our abbreviations.

Next, give the species of animal. Just the species. That means cat, dog, horse, or whatever. Do not list your pet’s breed. It doesn’t matter if Coco is a Norwegian duck tolling retriever or Flower is an Egyptian Mau. Extraneous information slows things down. They do want to know your pet’s age and approximate weight, when the pet ingested the plant, and what symptoms they are exhibiting, if any. These folks are botanists, not medical professionals. This page does not give medical advice. What they can do is identify the plant or fungus in question. Quickly. Accurately. For free. You can then relate that information to the ASPCA, Animal Poison Control, or Pet Poison Hotline, so a veterinary toxicologist can determine the risk, tell you if you need to seek emergency care, and provide you with a treatment plan for your veterinarian.

The Poisons Help; Emergency Identification for Mushrooms & Plants group has a few guidelines. If Coco sniffs a mushroom, that’s not an emergency. Do not post to the group. If Coco licks a mushroom … still not an emergency. Do not post. If he was in the yard with mushrooms … still not an emergency. If you are curious what that mushroom is just in case Coco eats it in the future … still not an emergency. Get it? The only time to post to this group is if your pet has definitely ingested a plant or fungus, and you are not sure what it is.

For kitty Flower, if you are positive she has had lily exposure, it doesn’t matter if it is a stargazer or an Easter lily. Any “true” lily in the genus Lilium is potentially deadly to cats. Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are also toxic to cats, but there are a few flowers we call “lilies” that are not true lilies, and are not toxic. These include peace, Peruvian, and calla lilies. If you don’t know if the plant in question is a true lily, or if you know that Flower has ingested some other type of unidentified flora, you can get help at the Poisons Help Group. Join now.

In case you are wondering, lilies are not toxic to dogs. Chocolate can be toxic to cats, but most kitties don’t seem to have the same sweet tooth as dogs, preferring actual bunnies to chocolate ones. Of course, eating actual bunnies can transmit tularemia, but that’s a column for another day. Happy spring!