Sago Palm Poisoning
Sago Palms are pretty plants but beware—they pack a deadly punch for pets. The popular Sago Palm enhances outdoor landscapes in warmer areas of the U.S. and serves as indoor decor in many colder climates.
Also called coontie palms, cardboard palms, cycades or zymias, Sago Palms are readily available in small nurseries or in the garden sections of large home improvement stores. Unfortunately, pet owners may not realize that the potted plant they buy today may kill their cat or dog tomorrow.
All parts of the Sago Palm are poisonous, but the seeds (nuts) are the most toxic to pets and are easier for them to eat than the prickly fronds. The Sago Palm toxin, called cycasin, attacks the liver causing a broad range of symptoms. The degree of liver failure determines the severity of the symptoms.The amount of plant matter ingested vs. the size of the pet influences the level of toxicity. For example, a 10 pound dog will suffer more damage from ingesting 3 seeds than a 100 pound dog. Current health status is also a factor. A healthy
2 year old cat will likely recover better than a 12 year old cat with a host of other medical issues. However, regardless of age or health status of an animal, ingestion of any part of a Sago Palm is dangerous to pets.
Cycasin works quickly, causing symptoms as early as 15 minutes post-ingestion, although in some cases signs may not appear for several hours. The key is to seek help when you first suspect your dog or cat consumed Sago Palm. Cycasin irritates the gastrointestinal tract so drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea may be the first signs of poisoning. Dogs and cats with irritated gastrointestinal tracts may refuse to eat. These GI signs may seem minor, but if left untreated, liver failure is eminent. When the liver is incapacitated, other organ systems and bodily functions are affected. The blood doesn’t clot normally so the pet may bleed both externally (nose bleeds, gum bleeds) and internally. Blood loss can lead to shock and death. Without the liver working to detoxify the blood of normal metabolic by-products, the central nervous system may be affected. Pets may become weak, wobbly, have muscle tremors, or full blown seizures.
Symptoms of Sago Palm toxicity:
Blood in feces (black tarry stool)
Icterus (yellow coloration of skin and gums)
Ascites (accumulation of fluid in the abdomen)
Increased thirst and urination
Neurological signs (depression, circling, paralysis, seizures, coma)
The list of symptoms is scary and rightly so. The degree of toxicity of Sago Palms is considered “severe”.
There is no easy way to diagnose Sago Palm toxicity. There is no test to identify cycasin in the blood and no specific liver evaluation that points to palm ingestion. Your veterinarian will depend on you to help them help your pet. History of exposure is important, so tell your veterinarian which plants you have in your home or yard. Be observant when walking your dog and take note of any vegetation he investigates along the route.
Diagnosis without evidence of ingestion is more difficult, but your veterinarian can perform laboratory tests (blood and urine) that may support a diagnosis of Sago Palm toxicity. However, if you report exposure to Sago Palm, your veterinarian can reach a quicker conclusion and start life-saving therapy sooner.
When it comes to poisons, quick treatment is essential to success. If you know or even suspect your pet consumed Sago Palm, call your veterinarian or pet emergency clinic immediately. This is an emergency situation, and every minute counts! In cases of recent ingestion, veterinarians will often induce vomiting with medications like apomorphine, ipecac, or plain old hydrogen peroxide to remove the toxic plant from the stomach before it causes trouble. A compound called activated charcoal may be administered orally to absorb any released toxins from the stomach. Pumping the stomach (gastric lavage) may also help remove toxins. Unfortunately, many pet owners are not aware that their pet had eaten the plant, so the poison may already be in their system by the time the veterinarian sees the patient. If liver failure is evident, your pet’s doctor will initiate hospital therapy including IV fluids and transfusions of blood or plasma. Your pet may receive anti-emetic medications to control vomiting and gastrointestinal protectants to soothe the irritated GI tract. Antibiotics may be added to the regimen to prevent pneumonia that may occur if the pet aspirates vomitus. Vitamin K may be given to reduce bleeding. Supplements such as S-Adenosylmethionine, N-acetylcysteine, or Ursodeoxycholic acid may be administered to support the ailing liver. If seizures occur, medications will be given to control the episodes. Since there is no specific antidote for Sago Palm toxins, supportive care is a pet’s best hope for survival.
As with all poisoning cases, early detection and treatment increases the rate of success. With emergency treatment, many dogs and cats make a full recovery. Therapy to rid the body of toxins, remedy symptoms, and support liver function may involve extended hospital stays. After discharge, follow-up visits to monitor liver function via blood and urine tests are advised. Sadly, even with aggressive treatment, not all pets survive Sago Palm ingestion. Estimated mortality rates range from 32% to 50%. However, a 10 year retrospective survey by the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center revealed 1398 cases resulted in the deaths of 33 dogs. (2.4% mortality rate). But as pet owners know, the loss of one dog or cat is still one too many.
In colder areas, poisoning cases increase in the spring and summer months when pets are outdoors and palms flourish, but in southern climates, intoxication occurs year round. There is no seasonality to indoor poisonings from ingestion of potted house plants. The only sure way to prevent Sago Palm poisoning is to keep pets away from the plant altogether, which may mean forgoing keeping Sago Palms as houseplants. Some retail outlets and plant nurseries sell plants with warning labels, but not all do. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission does not have regulations in place that require warning labels on house plants, so it’s important for pet owners to be aware of the dangers of Sago Palms. These beautiful plants may not be worth the danger they present.
This client information sheet is based on material written by: Lynn Buzhardt, DVM
© Copyright 2017 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license
Alta Vista Veterinary Hospital is a Central Phoenix Animal Hospital.