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Sago palms pose serious risks to pets – here are key things to know

The couple knew the sago palm (Cycas revoluta) in their Tucson, Arizona, backyard was toxic to pets. They were careful to keep leaves and other parts of the plant picked up and away from their 2-year-old German shepherd, but one day he managed to ingest a small amount of the ornamental plant’s feathery leaves.

The reaction was rapid: severe liver failure. Depending on the individual protein, normal liver enzyme levels range from 5 to 150. This dog’s alanine transaminase level spiked to 8,777. A rapid rise in that enzyme is a distinguishing characteristic of sago palm poisoning.

Sago palms, also known as cycads, cardboard palms, fern palms and coontie plants, hail from tropical and subtropical areas but have become popular ornamental plants in the United States in the past 10 to 20 years. Once strictly outdoor plants, they are now available in small varieties suitable as houseplants.

In 2015, the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center reported a spike of more than 200 percent in sago palm toxicity cases nationwide. All parts of the plant contain a neurotoxin called cycasin, which can be deadly – even in tiny amounts – to dogs and cats. The seeds, or nuts, are the most toxic part of the plants. As few as one or two can be fatal.

Because sago palms are relatively new additions to yards and homes, many people, including some veterinarians, don’t know that they are toxic.

Fortunately, the German shepherd’s owners were aware of the danger to their dog and took him to a veterinary hospital right away. The first veterinarian they saw wasn’t familiar with sago palm toxicity, but a second had encountered the plants at a previous practice in California and recognized the dog’s signs.

Ingestion of sago palm leaves, seeds or other plant parts causes liver failure, usually signaled by drooling, vomiting, diarrhea or a tarry black stool, depression, appetite loss, abdominal pain, lethargy and jaundice. Signs can begin to occur as little as 15 minutes after ingestion, and pets can die within 24 to 48 hours.

Any suspected exposure to a sago palm should be considered an emergency situation.

This particular dog received IV fluids, dextrose given intravenously to maintain blood sugar levels, vitamin K to help support the blood’s clotting ability, and a drug to help protect the liver. He was lucky to survive. According to the Pet Poison Helpline website (petpoisonhelpline.com), the survival rate is approximately 50 percent, even with aggressive treatment. Although he survived, the dog lost a lot of weight, and recovery was slow.

The experience highlights the importance of knowing exactly what plants are in your yard and home, their scientific names and common names, and whether they’re known to be toxic. Plants’ common names can vary by region, but the scientific names remain the same and can be essential to determining whether a plant is toxic. And be aware that not all regional plants appear on lists of toxic plants. It’s a good idea to check with a veterinary toxicologist or other botanical expert.

If you have any doubts, take your pet to the veterinarian right away, along with a clipping or photo of the plant. Proper identification is important to the treatment plan because in some cases, even if the animal looks and acts normal, he could develop liver or kidney failure within hours or days.

So is the sago palm still in the owners’ yard?

Pet Connection is produced by a team of experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com.

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