It’s not yet safe to think that spring has fully sprung, but as the occasional warm days sneak back onto the calendar, it’s hard to resist cracking the windows and cleaning the house in preparation for brighter weather. In my case, that optimistic spirit invariably leads to the purchase of a few houseplants. Ignoring all prior experience, I believe this just has to be the year in which I’ll finally keep them alive for more than a week and a half.
If you live with animals, your choice of botanical decor should depend on more than just appearances. Unfortunately, some of the most beautiful plants are also the most dangerous. Those fiery tiger lilies might look fantastic in the garden, and the Easter lily on your kitchen table might be appropriate for the holiday, but they are outright deadly to cats.
Although it’s been known for some time, it remains unclear exactly why lilies are so poisonous to cats. The offending compound hasn’t been identified, but it makes quick work of a cat’s kidneys when ingested, even in a small amount. It doesn’t matter if they chew on the leaves, stem or petals. There is even evidence that the plant’s pollen is as toxic as the plant itself. Regardless, it only takes a few hours for symptoms to kick in, and fatal kidney failure follows within a day or two.
If a cat is caught in the act, prompt treatment to empty the stomach and provide hospitalized supportive care can save its life. But because lilies are often grown outdoors, ingestion frequently goes unrecognized until the damage is done. These cases may still benefit from aggressive treatment, but the prognosis is sadly more doubtful.
Oddly, cats are the only animals known to be affected by this particular toxicity. Other animals, including dogs, can eat these plants with only a bit of stomach upset to show for it.
Adding further confusion is the fact that not all lilies are lilies. Not technically, at any rate. The lily of the valley belongs to an entirely different family of plant and doesn’t cause renal failure in cats. But don’t relax just yet. Instead, it contains compounds called glycosides that can disrupt the normal function of the heart.
Still other pretenders include peace lilies and calla lilies. These unrelated plants are also toxic, but in a far lesser sense. Instead, they contain microscopic crystals called oxalates that can cause serious inflammation of the mouth, throat and stomach when ingested. They won’t kill anybody, but they can leave curious pets with a mouthful of regret.
I suppose it’s nice to know that not all lilies are cat killers, but the others still deal their share of damage. When it comes to preparing my home for spring, I think I’ll just leave any lilies out of it. It’s clearly the safest choice for my pets’ well-being. And given my track record with plants, it’s probably best for the lilies as well.
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.