Dr.Walt's happy tails: April 2002

Author: Canadian Living


Dr.Walt's happy tails: April 2002

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Dear Dr. Walt: I've heard that onions are poisonous for cats and dogs. I just wanted to know if chives are as well because my cats absolutely love them!

You raise a very important and timely question – in essence, what common plants, whether ornamental, garden, or used for cooking, can be harmful to our pets? We often have the false perception that animals can differentiate between poisonous and nonpoisonous plants thereby avoiding illness – not so! This is compounded by our desire to decorate the home and garden with attractive plants and, at times, allow our pets to munch on them safe in the belief that, if it is natural, it can't be harmful for them.

While this holds true for most plants, it cannot be applied to all plants. Chives and garlic are members of the onion family and, as such, can be very harmful to both cats and dogs as this family of plants has been known to cause the breakdown of red blood cells that may also lead to kidney failure. While fine for us, these plants and their by-products should be kept away from our pets.

Some other common indoor plants to be cautious of where our pets are concerned and the area of the body they affect include:

  • Kidney failure – Easter lilies (hence the timely nature of your question!) especially in cats.
  • Heart irregularities – potatoes (green growths and sprouts making the compost pile off-limits); hydrangea.
  • Neurological (such as seizures) – poppy; tulip; yellow iris; cyclamen; holly; ivy.
  • Bowel or gastrointestinal upset – many different plants but some of the more serious symptoms can occur with mistletoe, hydrangea, ivy, poinsettia, tulip, cyclamen, daffodil, yellow iris, and holly.

Also be cautious of administering herbal remedies to our pets; despite their frequent use in people, they can be harmful to our pets. Problems can occur with the ingestion of aloe and witch hazel (bowel upset); camphor and wormwood (neurological); nux vomica; oil of wintergreen (especially in cats); pennyroyal; and sassafras (especially in cats).

Another use of some ornamental plants is in arts & crafts. In this regard, castor beans are often used and can be extremely toxic if ingested.

The above information is not meant to be a deterrent to plant ownership nor to suggest that if you have any of these plants that they should be removed. It is simply meant to educate pet owners that there is a possibility of health problems with certain plants, especially if you own a pet that has a habit of being an indoor grazer! Armed with this knowledge, you can then decide whether to have these plants in the home and, if so, how best to avoid problems.

If you would like to provide some plant material for your cat to chew on, consider growing a small plot of grass in your home. Many stores carry the materials to do this and many cats quite enjoy nibbling on grass. While some dogs and cats may vomit following grass ingestion, it is not toxic to them; however, if vomiting is a side-effect in your pet, you may not be able to offer this option either.

For further information on items that may potentially be poisonous to our pets, including symptoms and first aid treatment, visit the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals National Animal Poison Control Center website at

Dear Dr. Walt: I have a 13-year-old, male cat. He recently lost one of his front main teeth. He does not seem to be bothered by it but I was wondering if there is anything that I should be doing for him. He is still able to eat his food and everything else seems normal. Thanks for your help.
– Lisa

Hi Lisa. I'm sorry to hear that your cat has lost one of his teeth but glad that, at least at this time, he doesn't appear bothered by it. However, I am concerned over what led to the loss of his tooth and the implications that this has for both his oral and general body health. Pets can loose their teeth for a variety of reasons with the most common being progressive gingivitis, or gum disease, and trauma, such as a blow to the dental arcade.

Based on your letter, it strikes me that an injury is an unlikely cause, making progressive gum disease more likely. Regardless, it would be critical for your veterinarian to examine this and your pet's other teeth to provide a more detailed answer to your question. If tooth loss was the result of an injury, the visible part may have been broken off leaving the root in place with resultant pain and eventual root infection. More commonly though, is that tooth loss occurs as the end result of ongoing gingivitis.

Gingivitis is gum inflammation that occurs due to the accumulation of plaque and tartar that, over time, traps bacteria that attack both the tooth and the tissues that anchor the tooth in place eventually resulting in tooth decay and loss. This infection can also gain access to the body through the blood stream and result in more generalized illness. Gingivitis is very common, generally involves all teeth in the mouth to varying degrees, and can be very painful for the pet. The good news is that it can be treated and is preventable.

Treatment usually involves a thorough dental cleaning to rid the teeth of the accumulating plaque/tartar and trapped bacteria. If the gingivitis is severe, a short course of antibiotics may be necessary and in those teeth with advanced tooth decay, extraction may be warranted. Once the condition is treated, a preventative dental program can prevent or slow down the process from returning.

In people, we generally take fastidious care of our teeth through a daily routine of brushing and flossing as well as regular visits to our dentist for preventative dental care. These same principles can be applied to our pets and are things that we, as responsible pet owners, can initiate at home. While flossing may not be realistic, daily brushing is and with gradual introduction, most pets accept this procedure well -- specially now with the availability of pet-specific toothpastes having meat or fish flavors! Special toothbrushes are also available to make our roles easier. There are also various chew toys, treats, and specialty diets all designed to make health teeth for our pets easier to accomplish.

Enlist the help of your veterinarian in better assessing your cat's current dental health, its treatment, and to develop a dental care program that best suits both you and your cat. Your cat will thank you!

About Dr. Walt Ingwersen
Dr. Walt Ingwersen is Chief Veterinary Officer at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. He is a 1982 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College. Board certified in Internal Medicine, he has the distinction of being the first Canadian editor of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, a position he currently holds.

Involved in many aspects of the national and international veterinary community, "Dr. Walt" is the recipient of the President's Award for outstanding contribution to the veterinary profession awarded by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). He is also Chief Veterinary Officer and Chairman of the Veterinary Advisory Board at PetCare Insurance Brokers Ltd. -- Canada's leading provider of insurance for dogs and cats.

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Dr.Walt's happy tails: April 2002