Leave the Lilies Outside: Toxic Plants and Cut Flowers

White Asiatic lilies from Easter Sunday, which my neighbor planted in his garden outdoors.
White Asiatic lilies from Easter Sunday, which my neighbor planted in his garden outdoors.

For kitty’s sake, this Easter plant that Easter lily outside!

A typical Easter lily flower with its prominent stamens, also from a neighbor's garden.
A typical Easter lily flower with its prominent stamens, also from a neighbor’s garden.

And plan ahead for what flowers you may give as gifts or bring into your own home. Many of the flowers symbolic of this holiday or used for decoration this time of year are toxic to pets including flowers from spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, paperwhite narcissus, crocus, tulips and hyacinths, including when these plants are found in bouquets.

But especially that big white “Easter lily”, often carried home from church on Easter Sunday or given as a gift, is often deadly to cats. All species of lily are toxic as well, including Asiatic lily, daylily, tiger lily and even smaller lilies like alstromeria.

All parts of the lily are toxic too—flowers, leaves, stems, bulb, even the pollen from the stamens, so prominent in those Easter lilies. Look at the stamens in the photo of the lily at left—what self-respecting kitty wouldn’t go in for a thorough inspection of those?

My cats will eat anything green I bring into the house, whether it’s cut flowers or a house plant. Most cats aren’t terribly particular about what greens they’ll nibble on; generally they’ll try anything green and fresh, and some cats will completely chew down a plant that can’t have tasted very good and wasn’t very easy to chew. They don’t stop with leaves, either, but will eat the petals off of a flower, the stems, it’s all a potential snack.

pencil sketch of cat with flowers
Would a cat eat a daisy? Namir did. “Conversation With a Daisy”, pencil © B.E. Kazmarski

Many of the cautions in this article apply to dogs as well, but cats are a little more sensitive to certain plants—lilies, for instance, may give a dog a tummy ache but they may kill a kitty—plus kitties can jump and climb and get themselves into truly amazing places, so I am focusing on cats for this article. But for any pet, please be cautious of flowers and plants and keep the list of toxic species linked at the end handy.

Cats aren’t necessarily particular in what greens they’ll nibble on; generally they’ll try anything green and fresh, and some cats will completely chew down a plant that can’t have tasted very good and wasn’t very easy to chew. They don’t stop with leaves, either, but will eat the petals off of a flower.

And while many pet owners know the dangers of various houseplants, most people don’t associate cut flowers with these dangers, yet many cut bouquets include flowers from some of the most toxic plants for cats and dogs. What makes it complicated is that we recognize them when they are individual growing plants, but may not even notice them in a mixed bouquet.

Some plants cause gastric upset which can be a mess to clean up and is uncomfortable for your cat, but it can also have long-lasting effects such as ulcers in the mouth or digestive tract, and excessive vomiting or diarrhea can dehydrate and even kill a very young or old cat.

Other plants more seriously affect a cat’s organs and can be deadly within hours, even to a healthy cat.


Lilies in all their forms

"Sunday Best", my neighbor's Easter lilies.
“Sunday Best”, my neighbor’s Easter lilies.

Lilies in just about all their species can cause kidney damage in cats which is permanent and can lead to kidney failure within 48 hours if left untreated.

Alstromeria
Alstromeria

Sure, we know the big white lilies at Easter, but consider an everyday small grocery story bouquet: a few yellow mums, some white daisies, pink carnations, fern, baby’s breath and—alstromeria, a South American lily, which comes in colors from white to scarlet.

Or a medium-sized get-well bouquet: Yellow roses, white mums, blue larkspur and—two big pink Stargazer lilies.

Common daylilies, also called tiger lilies, which does not make them friendly to cats.
Common daylilies, also called tiger lilies, which does not make them friendly to cats.

And what used to be part of my favorite backyard bouquets in spring: pink climbing rose, red rambler rose, Shasta daisies, blue widow’s tears and—big orange daylilies, as well as any of the other domestic or hybrid lilies that you may grow in your back yard.


Bulb-forming plants

Purple Tulips
Purple Tulips
A gift basket of tiny narcissus and iris ended up outside to welcome guests.
A gift basket of tiny narcissus and iris ended up outside to welcome guests.

Instead of a bouquet of cut flowers we’ll often give or receive bulbs forced to bloom early in baskets and pots. I used to welcome the new year and the last long days of winter with forced bulbs all over my house as pots of paperwhite narcissus, trays of daffodils and baskets of mixed fragrant tulips, hyacinth and crocus along with squills and starflowers.

Then I learned that any part of these plants can not only cause gastric upset but also organ damage, specifically kidney damage and heart failure. I remembered a healthy fifteen-year-old cat I’d lost years before to acute kidney failure—her kidneys just failed one day and I had to put her to sleep the next. This can happen without an outside stimulus, but I’ll always wonder if that was the cause and I have never forced bulbs in any place my cats could get them since then.

In the same way, onion and garlic, also bulb-forming plants though they are considered food, are toxic to cats.


Other plants

Rhododendron
Rhododendron
Azalea flowers.
Azalea flowers.

While most plants are not that immediately toxic, other plants, such as azalea and rhododendron, lily of the valley, ivy and yew can be deadly to cats in impaired health or kittens, since they’re small enough to get a big dose with an enthusiastic bite. Though not deadly for adult cats in good health, they’ll often cause extreme abdominal pain, nausea, salivation and vomiting. Repeated exposure can be cumulative with some plants.


How to keep your cat away

A gift of tulips after an event went outside my door when the weather was nice.
A gift of tulips after an event went outside my door when the weather was nice.

Don’t presume you’ll outwit your cat. Try the following:

  • Don’t try to put them in an out-of-the-way or high place in your house! Cats can jump several feet straight up and are agile climbers, especially when they have the incentive of that vase of flowers on top of your entertainment center where they’ve never gone before. They may injure themselves in the attempt, break a ceramic or glass vase creating a hazard for the whole house, or may actually succeed in getting to the plant and eating it despite your attempts to keep it away from them.
  • Look over the bouquet and remove anything that is potentially toxic. Instead of tossing them, take them to the nearest nursing home, personal care home or other public place that might appreciate cut flowers on display—as long as there isn’t a kitty there.
  • Likewise, take live plants that are toxic to your cats to your nearest care facility, again making certain there isn’t a resident kitty.
  • If it’s warm enough, put cut flowers in a vase on your front porch.
  • Plant live plants, such as lilies, tulips and other forced bulbs, hydrangea and azalea, or display them in their pots on your porch or in your yard instead of bringing them indoors. Many plants in pots have spent some time outdoors in a nursery display at a garden center and will adapt just fine.

Sometimes cats have no sense

“Oh, she’ll stop eating if she gets sick,” or “she won’t eat this, it’s got little thorns”, don’t believe that. I’ve seen cats try to eat cacti, drool while they are chewing aloe and vomit up philodendron and go back to eating again. Don’t rely on their non-existent common sense, just remove the plant.

You can’t really punish them for following both a natural impulse and a physical need. We don’t really know why cats, obligate carnivores with no obvious need for greens, chew on grass, but some guess they help cleanse their mouth and digestive system, and to add fiber to their primarily protein diet to aid in elimination. An indoor kitty will take what she can get to simulate the natural outdoor environment she craves.

Namir in the arboricola.
Namir in the arboricola.

The problem is that, while you may get some cats to stay away from your plants, most cats will return again and again, even if they suffer discomfort from their snack. The best way to keep your cats safe from plants is to put the plants completely out of reach—bearing in mind that cats can jump six times their height and can be ingenious about launching from strategic furniture to get into a hanging basket. Sometimes it is necessary to completely remove the plant from the house, no matter how much you like it.

Signs of plant poisoning may include vomiting, diarrhea, and swelling or pain inside the cat’s mouth. If you know or suspect which plant your cat has eaten, identify the plant by name when you call your veterinarian. Bring samples of the plant’s leaves or flowers when you take your cat to the veterinarian for treatment.

Keeping your cat out of your plants…?

Lucy's Garden.
Lucy’s Garden.

What happened to that nice spider plant you used to have? Oops—while enjoying the scene out the window, Fluffy forgot it wasn’t just a clump of grass and chewed it down to little nubbins. Then, because it really wasn’t grass and really wasn’t digestible by her little system, she deposited it back on your carpet in a most inelegant manner.

And that wandering jew? She used it for a bed? I’ll bet she looked sweet.

A determined cat will do what she wants. Remember, you have to sleep some time.

As for the non-toxic flora, even though Fluffy won’t suffer if she chews on it (unless you get your hands on her), you still don’t want her shredding your greenery. Several commercial sprays will give the plant a bad smell and/or taste without damaging the plant with recommended use, and a nibble by Fluffy will not harm her. One product is “Bitter Apple for Plants”, a stronger version of which is available for dogs learning not to chew on everything. Other products are named “Off for Cats” and such like, and simply smell bad.

You can also try your own home brew by dabbing hot sauce on the tips of some of the leaves, or rubbing a citrus peel on the leaf. For the sake of your plants, however, just try it on one or two leaves to make sure you won’t fry the whole plant in an effort to keep Fluffy from eating it.

You could also place “Sticky Paws” on the countertop around the arrangement or plant so that when she steps close to the plant she steps on the product and backs off; please read the instructions on the Sticky Paws package for what surfaces are appropriate for its use.

Distractions

Peaches with her greens.
Peaches with her greens.

One other thing to help the situation—and it’s a nice thing to do for your cat even if you don’t have a plant problem—is to plant her own pot of greens and make it available to her at all times. Don’t use regular plant seeds such as grass seed because some seeds are treated with chemicals, at least check before you use them; instead, purchase “cat greens”, usually a mixture of wheat, oats and barley grains, all three of which are not only a pleasure for your cat, but full of nutrition. Some other commercial “cat greens” mixtures contain catnip, a sure winner, sage, parsley, chickweed, colt’s foot grass, and other herbs and wild plants that your cat would eat if outdoors.

Most of these plants can be grown in a small container on a windowsill, and if you keep two containers growing, one available to the cat and one just sprouting, you can have a constant treat for her. These plants need a good bit of sunlight to thrive, so try to find a sunny spot that your cat can get to. It will serve two purposes: because she tends to chew when she’s gazing at the outdoors, you’ve provided exactly what she needs for her little interlude.

I have another article in this series on just this subject entitled “Living Green With Pets: A Garden for Your Cats”.


Keep toxic plant and flower information handy

guide to common plants toxic to pets
“Beautiful But Deadly: Toxic Plant Guide”

I’ve put together a downloadable guide to the most common toxic flowers and plants to appear in bouquets and as seasonal decorations in your home. It includes photos and names of plants, brief information on their toxicity, and links to flower and plant databases as well as pet poison control hotlines.

Click here or on the thumbnail of the flyer to bring up the PDF (the PDF looks best when you download it and open it on your computer).

Other resources

Your local veterinarians and shelters often have lists of toxic flora has handouts, and plenty of resources exist on the internet.

And as far as those flowers, you just can’t go wrong with roses!

17 Common Poisonous Plants

ASPCA Searchable Database of Plants

For more information on plants, toxins, references and hotlines

17 Common Poisonous Plants: www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/17-common-poisonous-plants.aspx

ASPCA Searchable Database of Plants, with photos and descriptions, updated regularly:

www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants

ASPCA Online Poison Control Center including plants, medications, cleaning products and most other toxins your pet could come in contact with: www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/

Both of the hotlines below are available 24/7/365 providing live consultation for animal poison emergencies. The credit card charge covers the initial phone consultation and any follow-up consultation you or your veterinarian may need for your case. For instance, if you call and find out that the toxin your cat has come in contact with needs to be treated by a veterinarian, you can give your case number to your veterinarian and they can also call the hotline for recommendations on treatment. There is no further charge.

ASPCA ANIMAL POISON CONTROL CENTER 888-426-4435, www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/

$65 credit card charge covers the initial phone consultation and any follow-up consultation.

pet poison helpline 800-213-6680, www.petpoisonhelpline.com

Affiliated with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, $35 credit card charge.

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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats. From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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