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June 08, 2020

Toxic Plants and Small Mammals

by Dr. Cayla Iske, PhD

In a safe environment, small mammals are naturally quite inquisitive. Pair that instinctual curiosity with a set of continuously growing teeth and it’s a recipe for chewing on everything they can reach. Whether indoors or out, any environment you introduce your pet to should first be thoroughly inspected and free from any items you don’t want them getting into, especially things that could cause harm like toxic plants.  

What Makes a Plant Unsafe? 

Not unlike our small companions, plants are consistently at risk of being eaten, with one key distinction – our beloved pets ARE the predators in this scenario. Because plants cannot scurry away and hide (a favorite predator avoidance technique of small mammals), numerous plant species have developed poisonous chemicals, or other nasty attributes (such as thorns or nettles), to avoid being eaten by herbivores. The type of toxin and severity of impact to the animal can vary significantly between different plant species. Ingestion or contact with a toxic plant can result in anything from skin irritation, to gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestinal tract), to organ damage. There are even a few plant species whose toxins can actually lead to death. It is important to also remember that every animal can react differently, and some animals are more sensitive to certain plant toxins than others. Regardless of the potentially toxic effects, it is important to ensure your furry friend only has access to environments that are free from all potential risks. Even a run-in with a plant that is considered “mildly toxic” can cause your little one enough discomfort to affect their overall health.  

In the House 

With a seemingly endless list of possible house plants, it is futile (and impossible) to list every variety. It is easiest and safest to assume any and all house plants may be toxic to your little one. There are several great references of toxic plant lists to look at listed below, but even they don’t cover all species. Unless you’ve specifically purchased a house plant that is known to be safe for your fur baby’s enjoyment, take all precautions to keep them away from plants in your home. Keeping your plants up off the ground and well-trimmed can also help avoid accidental ingestion.  

Outdoor Adventures 

The list of house plants is long, but it’s nowhere near the length of list necessary to name every possible plant you might encounter outside. Like indoor plants, it is safest to assume any wild plant is toxic until proven otherwise. Ensuring a plant is safe for your little one includes both identifying the plant and determining if any chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) have been used on it (either directly or indirectly). Before letting your small friend consume any plant you should be 100% sure of its species, safety, and chemical applications. If you’re interested in learning more about safe outdoor excursions with your small pet, check out the following blog: Spending Time Outdoors with Your Small Mammal.  

If your furry companion does get into a plant, be it indoors or out, first try to identify the species of plant, if you don’t already know. Once you’ve identified the plant, or at least narrowed it down, you can conduct your own research online (there are several reliable resources listed at the end of this article) or reach out to your trusted exotics veterinarian for their input. Though not an exhaustive list, below you will find some common plants that are well-known to be toxic to small mammals. If you have any of these plants in your home or yard, it is best to either remove them, or ensure they are in an area your small friend never has access to: 

  • Anything growing from a bulb (hyacinths, daffodils, tulips, iris)  
  • Azaleas 
  • Buttercups 
  • Foxglove 
  • Hemlock 
  • Holly (berries) 
  • Ivy 
  • Lily-of-the-Valley 
  • Nightshade 
  • Philodendron 
  • Privet (berries) 
  • Rhododendrons 
  • Rhubarb (leaves) 
  • Yew (berries) 

There are many, many more varieties of plant life that can be toxic, so it is very important to know the exact specie(s) of plant you’re looking at. Don’t forget you can also reach out to a poison helpline for more advice and we’ve listed a few below. When in doubt about the plant species or potential toxicity it is always best to contact your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. 

What CAN They Eat? 

With so many plant species worldwide, the list of known edible plants is likely much shorter than the list of hazardous varieties. A few of these safer options are as follows: 

  • Dandelion 
  • Goldenrod 
  • All clovers 
  • Mallow 
  • Yarrow 
  • Asters 
  • Marigolds 
  • Nasturtiums 
  • Sunflowers 

In addition to these, there are many garden herbs and greens your fur baby can enjoy both in and out of the garden. Lists of appropriate greens and veggies can be found in previously posted blogs and it can be enriching to let your little friend enjoy these straight from the garden once in a while. Growing your own greens and veggies can also put you at ease that no chemicals have been used in the growing process. While the flesh of the fruits and veggies are great treats, be cautious to avoid feeding seeds found in many plants, such as bell peppers and apples. Like all tasty things, be sure to let them enjoy these safe plants in moderation.  

It is important to educate yourself about toxic plants before a critical circumstance arises. Knowing what is safe and what is toxic can help you avoid a stressful and potentially very unhealthy situation for everyone. The easiest way to do this is to eliminate the uncertainty and only expose your beloved pet to identified plants you are certain won’t cause any harm. Setting the proper stage for your pet both indoors and outside will allow you to truly enjoy your time together without the worry. 

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