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Dogs and Poisonous Plants

By Paul James

Azaleas. Tulips. Milkweed. Yews. They’re all fine plants for the landscape. And they’re all  potentially fatal to dogs. Fact is, the list of plants that are toxic to dogs — from mildly so to incredibly so — includes several popular landscape plants as well as houseplants. But while the threat is real, there are far more dangerous substances lurking in your home.

Consider this: The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center gets about 150,000 inquiries a year regarding domestic animal poisonings, but only about 5% of them concern plant poisonings. The vast majority of calls (roughly 30%) involve the ingestion of over-the-counter and prescription medicines, followed by people food (especially chocolate, avocados, onions, and grapes), household products such as drain cleaners, mouse and rat baits, insecticides, and lastly, lawn and garden products.

The actual number of dog deaths due to plant poisonings is hard to determine, but according to the staff at Harvard Avenue Veterinary Hospital in Tulsa, “Plant toxicity fatalities in dogs are rare. We don’t usually get a definitive plant toxicity diagnosis [because] there is no test for it…but we land on that as a most likely cause for vomiting and diarrhea.”  So yes, dogs do get sick after eating certain plants (including turf grasses), but they rarely die.   

As a dog lover, I’m keenly aware of the dangers plants pose to our four-legged friends, and while the death of one dog is truly sad (I’ve lost seven in my lifetime), I’ve always felt as though the reaction many people have to the idea of planting anything known to be toxic to dogs is overblown, in large part due to a lack of understanding of the term toxic.

For example, I enjoy a martini every evening. The alcohol (ethanol) in my drink is potentially toxic, even fatal, but not in the dose I consume. And when dogs ingest toxic plants, they rarely consume enough of the toxins to cause severe symptoms, let alone death. That’s because most plant toxins (poisons) are quite bitter, and after a bite or two dogs tend to lose interest.

So I’ve never thought twice about including plants in my landscape that are known to be toxic to dogs. And fortunately, I’ve never lost a dog to plant poisoning. Neither have any of my kids. Or friends. And in all my years (67 on Labor Day!), I’ve never even heard a story of a dog dying after eating a plant. It happens, for sure. But the point is it’s rare, and when compared to the threat posed by so many other common household items and foods, it’s exceedingly rare.

If you suspect your dog has accidentally ingested a potentially toxic substance — plant or otherwise — call your vet immediately and do not not induce vomiting unless advised to do so. If you don’t have a veterinarian, contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 or go to their website.

Many thanks to Dr. Thomas McCoy, DVM (a fellow beagle lover), Sarah Markland, and the other fine folks at Harvard Avenue Veterinary Hospital for help in writing this post, and for taking such good care of the James family dogs over the years — Buster, Stella, Rita, Maggie, Marley, Leelah, Fry, Diego, and Chuck.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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