Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Plant Threat to Pets

Sago palms pose serious risks. Here’s what to know about these popular landscape and houseplants

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

The couple knew the sago palm (Cycas revoluta) in their Tucson, Arizona, backyard was toxic to pets. They were careful to keep leaves and other parts of the plant picked up and away from their 2-year-old German shepherd, but one day he managed to ingest a small amount of the ornamental plant's feathery leaves.

The reaction was rapid: severe liver failure. Depending on the individual protein, normal liver enzyme levels range from 5 to 150. This dog’s alanine transaminase level spiked to 8,777. A rapid rise in that enzyme is a distinguishing characteristic of sago palm poisoning.

Sago palms, also known as cycads, cardboard palms, fern palms and coontie plants, hail from tropical and subtropical areas but have become popular ornamental plants in the United States in the past 10 to 20 years. Once strictly outdoor plants, they are now available in small varieties suitable as houseplants.

In 2015, the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center reported a spike of more than 200 percent in sago palm toxicity cases nationwide. All parts of the plant contain a neurotoxin called cycasin, which can be deadly -- even in tiny amounts -- to dogs and cats. The seeds, or nuts, are the most toxic part of the plants. As few as one or two can be fatal.

Because sago palms are relatively new additions to yards and homes, many people, including some veterinarians, don’t know that they are toxic.

Fortunately, the German shepherd's owners were aware of the danger to their dog and took him to a veterinary hospital right away. The first veterinarian they saw wasn’t familiar with sago palm toxicity, but a second had encountered the plants at a previous practice in California and recognized the dog’s signs.

Ingestion of sago palm leaves, seeds or other plant parts causes liver failure, usually signaled by drooling, vomiting, diarrhea or a tarry black stool, depression, appetite loss, abdominal pain, lethargy and jaundice. Signs can begin to occur as little as 15 minutes after ingestion, and pets can die within 24 to 48 hours.

Any suspected exposure to a sago palm should be considered an emergency situation. Don’t “wait and see,” and don’t waste time trying to get the pet to vomit.

This particular dog received IV fluids, dextrose given intravenously to maintain blood sugar levels, vitamin K to help support the blood’s clotting ability, and a drug to help protect the liver. He was lucky to survive. According to the Pet Poison Helpline website (, the survival rate is approximately 50 percent, even with aggressive treatment. Although he survived, the dog lost a lot of weight, and recovery was slow.

The experience highlights the importance of knowing exactly what plants are in your yard and home, their scientific names and common names, and whether they’re known to be toxic. Plants' common names can vary by region, but the scientific names remain the same and can be essential to determining whether a plant is toxic. And be aware that not all regional plants appear on lists of toxic plants. It’s a good idea to check with a veterinary toxicologist or other botanical expert who’s familiar with the properties of plants in your area.

If you have any doubts, take your pet to the veterinarian right away, along with a clipping or photo of the plant. Proper identification is important to the treatment plan because in some cases, even if the animal looks and acts normal, he could develop liver or kidney failure within hours or days.

So is the sago palm still in the owners’ yard?

No. They removed it the same day their dog was hospitalized.


Feline heart disease

strikes suddenly

Q: I found my 18-month-old cat dead. I had been playing with him just a few minutes earlier, and as far as I knew he was in good health. My veterinarian said he probably died from a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. What can you tell me about this disease, and how can I avoid it in a future cat?

A: I’m so sorry for your loss.

Unfortunately, HCM is the most common form of heart disease in cats, and there are few obvious signs. Some cats with HCM have a heart murmur, but that isn’t always a definite sign. Cats with HCM can go into congestive heart failure, develop an arterial thrombus -- a clot lodged in an artery -- or die suddenly.

Any cat, pedigreed or random-bred, can develop HCM. We don’t know what causes the disease, but Maine coon and ragdoll cats have a genetic mutation for it. A genetic test can identify cats in those breeds who carry the disease mutation. It is also seen in Cornish and Devon rexes, Norwegian forest cats, Persians, and sphynxes. Most commonly, cats with HCM are middle-aged males, but females can be affected, too, as can young cats.

Cats with HCM may not show signs of disease, especially in the early stages. Some become weak or collapse suddenly. Cats diagnosed with a heart murmur --an abnormal “whooshing” sound -- abnormal lung sounds, or an irregular heart rhythm should be seen by a veterinary cardiologist for further screening with an echocardiogram.

Any time a cat seems unusually lethargic or has rapid or labored breathing, take him to the veterinarian immediately. He may have left-sided congestive heart failure associated with HCM. Cats with CHF can benefit from medications to slow the heart rate, help relax the heart’s pumping chambers and prevent fluid from building up in the lungs. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Heroic German shepherd

recovers from wounds

-- Hero dog Rex is recovering well after taking three bullets during a home invasion last month to protect his owner, 16-year-old Javier Mercado. The German shepherd was shot once in the neck and once in each hind leg. Jennifer Weh, DVM, a veterinary surgical specialist at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital in Renton, Washington, repaired the fractured left hind leg by inserting a surgical pin and screw. Rex was expected to go home to his family to continue recovery. The family was able to pay the $2,000 needed to stabilize the dog, and public contributions covered the $8,000 cost of the surgery.

-- In North Sacramento, California, a shelter for people who are homeless has begun to accept their pets as well. It houses more than 100 dogs and eight cats who are permitted to sleep next to their humans, reports Cynthia Hubert in the Sacramento Bee. Dogs and cats living in the dormlike shelter receive veterinary services from the city’s Front Street Animal Shelter, and shelter residents must feed, walk and clean up after their pets, as well as prevent squabbles between pets or injuries to humans. Three bite incidents at the shelter account for a small percentage of all dog bites investigated by Sacramento’s animal control agency, says chief animal control officer Jace Huggins.

-- The 2018 Winter Olympics may be over, but some communities are hosting Dog Olympic Games in the coming months. Is your dog ready for the Ball Lottery (dogs retrieve numbered balls; the dog with the highest total wins), Clean Plate Club (self-explanatory); and a dog trick showdown, to name just a few of the events? Look for competitions in Dunwoody, Georgia, on March 17; St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on April 15; or check your local shelter to see if events are planned. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.