One of the highlights of my weekend was the successful treatment of an adorable puppy named Leeloo. After being hospitalized for nearly 72 hours, she thankfully fell into the percentage of dogs who survive the ingestion of this highly toxic plant: the sago palm.
Sago palms are not really palms at all; they just look like one. The sago palm is a cycad and contains the toxin cycasin and even very young plants are toxic enough to cause death in pets. Contrary to popular belief, all parts of both male and female plants are toxic, with the seeds being the most lethal component.
The reddish-orange seeds are round to oblong in shape and can be a little bigger than a golf ball in mature plants. Many dogs seem to enjoy chewing on these bitter seeds, which leads to nothing but trouble. I’ve even heard talk of people throwing the seeds like a ball for their dog, completely unaware of the deadly dangers!
Like Leeloo’s family, many people are unaware that the plant is deadly. And even if they have heard of the toxic effects, they don’t realize that the plant they are purchasing is actually a sago palm! Why is this? The plants are becoming increasingly popular in all areas of the country, and are often sold as unmarked potted plants in stores such as Target and Home Depot. They are simply labeled as a “palm tree,” without any warning label, and people are not aware that they are bringing home a potentially lethal plant. Over the past five years, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has seen an increase in sago palm toxicities by 200 percent, and according to their data, 50 to 75 percent of cases result in the death of the pet. This number includes pets that are euthanized due to the cost of care; on a slightly brighter note, 68 percent of those pets that are treated early are reported to survive.
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Dogs who have ingested any part of the plant soon begin vomiting, and this can be accompanied by diarrhea, depression, and lack of appetite. Liver failure generally occurs within 24-36 hours following ingestion, and in most cases, intensive treatment is necessary. If it has been 4-6 hours since ingestion, your veterinarian will attempt to induce vomiting, as well as give charcoal to help absorb the toxin. Intravenous fluids for 72 hours, medications to help support liver function, and possibly the transfusion of blood products are needed. Frequent monitoring of liver values will help to determine if your pet will survive the exposure.
Leeloo was a lucky survivor and we were able to keep her from going into liver failure with early and intensive treatment. Sadly, there was a case a couple of months ago that involved one of our police dogs, and he did not survive. The officer had a sago palm in his yard for 5 years, unknowing of the danger, and his canine partner decided to chew on a seed after leaving it alone all that time. So please, if you share your home or yard with a sago palm, now is the time to dig it up and dump it in the garbage. Make sure you are disposing of it in your “actual” garbage, and not your compost or yard waste bin, as these contents are often mulched and repurposed, putting the palm back into the environment where other pets can be exposed. If you believe that a pet may have eaten any part of a sago palm, please seek veterinary care immediately!