Sowing trouble: When pets and plants collide

THOROUGHLY VETTED

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File photo. File photo.

With an overdue spring finally coming into its own, it’s time for many of us to start spending some time in the garden. Whether you’re planting vegetables for the table or decorative plants to brighten up the yard, you can be pretty sure that your pets are going to be keen on inspecting the greenery. And by inspecting, I mean eating. Unfortunately, not everything in our gardens is pet-safe.

The biggest threat comes in the early stages when bulbs are being planted. These things are like buried treasures for curious dogs, and if a plant is toxic, the bulb is often where you’ll find its toxin in highest concentration. Daffodils, hyacinth, tulips, and lilies are some of the most common garden plants with poisonous bulbs, but there are many others. Be particularly vigilant in keeping pets from rooting around in the dirt after planting. And if you plan to store those bulbs indoors for a few days prior to putting them in the ground, bear in mind that you might be placing the most dangerous part of your garden right under your pet’s nose.

Animals don’t necessarily need to dig up the bulb in order to become poisoned. Many plants defend themselves with toxic leaves and flowers as well. In small amounts, most toxic plants are only capable of causing gastrointestinal distress—maybe some oral irritation and vomiting. But the full list of toxic plants is too broad to generalize, and some can be extremely dangerous. Be particularly wary of lilies if you have cats. They are uniquely vulnerable to lily toxicity, suffering potentially fatal kidney failure even at relatively low doses. Although some species of lily are safer than others, I would recommend that you not leave things to chance unless you’re absolutely sure. If you’re a cat owner, it’s worth leaving lilies of any kind out of your home and garden just for peace of mind.

Gardens aren’t always decorative, however. You may have read or heard about the potential hazards of common vegetables like onions, garlic, potatoes, and tomatoes. There is an element of truth here, but it has been greatly exaggerated—people just can’t resist sensationalizing strange facts like these. In all four cases, the toxic compounds are present in miniscule concentrations, and pets would need to consume very large amounts to pose any serious threat. It’s certainly possible for an intrepid dog to scavenge enough, so I’d recommend common-sense precautions, but you can generally grow these plants without a great deal of concern.

Unfortunately, a full list of toxic plants is far too exhaustive to cram into a single article. Luckily, the ASPCA maintains an online glossary of poisonous plants, and I recommend that you check to see if anything on your garden list might be there. It may be wise to ensure those plants are kept safely behind fences, or that they are simply left out altogether. And if you do have reason to think your pet may have eaten a poisonous plant, it’s always best to act quickly. Call your veterinarian right away. Toxicity, regardless of the type, only becomes more difficult to treat as time passes after ingestion.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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