Being a practicing veterinarian along the Northern East Coast states, I see a lot of certain diseases (like Lyme disease, for instance), but there’s one serious malady I am glad I don’t see very often: sago palm toxicity.
Sago palms are popular landscape plants in regions that have sandy soils in tropical to subtropical climates (Florida, California, and Texas, I’m looking at you!). They can be houseplants, as well, and also come in a miniaturized bonsai form. No matter the size or the location, make no mistake – these plants are deadly!
The toxin in sago palms is called cycasin, and it’s found in all parts of the plant, including the seeds, the fruit and the base. Its highest concentration is found in the seeds, which are easy to ingest. Dogs and cats (and horses) seem to find both the plant and seeds quite tasty and are not shy about chowing down.
Once ingested, the seeds strike fast, and vomiting will begin quickly (usually within three hours of ingestion). This is followed by abdominal pain, diarrhea, depression, coma, and death over several hours to an agonizing few days. Sago palm quickly leads to protein loss through the gastrointestinal tract and acute liver failure. Disseminated intravascular coagulation (or DIC, for short) is a blood clotting disorder that can also occur, complicating treatment and contributing to the sago palm’s danger.
Ingesting sago palm is life threatening. If you have reason to believe that your pet has eaten any part of the plant, seek veterinary help immediately! Once clinical signs are seen, a third of pets will die from the effects of sago palm’s toxins. If ingestion is recent, your veterinarian will likely try to induce vomiting to get rid of any sago palm material in the stomach before decontamination is attempted.
Treatment should be aggressive whether ingestion was recent or not. Intravenous fluids, plasma transfusions, anti-nausea medications, and gastrointestinal protectants (like Pepcid) are all par for the course in treating sago palm toxicity, and can all be covered by your dog insurance or cat insurance from Petplan. Unfortunately, many pets will die despite aggressive treatments.
Sago palms are just as toxic to humans, which is important to remember if you have little two legged creatures running amok in your home with your pets. If you have pets or children, just don’t take chances – make sago palms unwelcome houseplants and don’t include them in your landscaping!