Beautiful But Deadly
Richard Stone, DVM, DACVIM
Sago palms, also known as cycad palms, are a very popular plant locally. These plants provide the yard with a tropical feel, are easy to maintain and can add a little personality to an otherwise drab front yard. However, these plants are fatally toxic to animals. Landscape companies and home improvement stores often fail to warn consumers of the toxic dangers of these plants to companion animals. The leaves, bark, roots and seeds of the sago palm are dangerously lethal to all animals though most ingestions occur in dogs who consume the seeds. The presence of this plant in a pet’s environment can place their life in jeopardy. Seeds can also be spread by wildlife, resulting in accidental ingestion by companion animals. As little as one to two ingested seeds are considered a lethal dose in a medium-sized dog. Ingestion of any part of a sago palm necessitates IMMEDIATE veterinary attention, even before the onset of symptoms. If ingestion of a sago palm is ever in question, the pet should be seen by a veterinarian or at the closest emergency hospital as soon as possible.
The symptoms of sago palm ingestion/toxicity can range from, but are not limited to, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy and inappetance. These signs are most commonly observed in the first 24-48 hours. More extreme symptoms will occur 2 to 3 days after ingestion, including weight loss, dehydration, coagulopathy, uncontrolled muscle spasms, weakness, low blood glucose, inability to walk and seizures. The later symptoms are the most life-threatening. In many cases, liver damage and/or failure occurs due to the ingestion. Liver failure is ultimately the cause of death for many dogs that ingest the seeds of the sago palm.
Dogs with a very recent ingestion of the seeds may have vomiting induced to attempt to rid the body of the toxic seeds. However, if several hours or days have passed since the suspected or known ingestion, vomiting will no longer be indicated as the seeds will likely have already been digested. The first step in assessing the severity of the pet’s medical condition is evaluating the complete blood work. These diagnostics will be used to determine the extent of damage, specifically to the liver. The results will be used to determine the most appropriate course of treatment. Intense hospitalization is often required in cases of sago palm ingestion. Therapy typically includes the administration of intravenous fluids, gastrointestinal protective medications and liver support medications. If liver failure has already occurred, plasma transfusions could also be necessary. Close monitoring of liver values, blood glucose, and coagulation factors is required throughout hospitalization. Smaller dogs are most at risk due to their size, though any animal that ingests the seeds is at substantial risk for liver failure. Overall mortality rate is 50% (Ferguson et al 2011); however, this number may be dramatically reduced with early intervention and hospitalization. Treatment can be as little as a few days of hospitalization with continuous monitoring of internal organ function or as long as several weeks in the hospital due to severe organ damage/failure. Many dogs will not survive even with intense care and diligent monitoring.
If an owner believes that their pet has come in contact with any part of this plant, they should seek medical attention immediately rather than waiting for symptoms to appear. Early intervention can be life-altering in cases of sago palm ingestion. It is important for pet owners to be aware of the types of plants currently in their yard and neighborhood. The best way to prevent sago palm toxicity is to steer clear of this type of palm tree in general. There are several different versions of palm trees that are not dangerous to pets and provide a homeowner with safe landscaping alternatives.