Pet Corner: Toxic Plants

Worried about toxic herbs? Stick with tonics

| May/June 1999

I once read that more than 700 plants are toxic to animals. Whew! Some folks must think that almost every weed on the planet is a potential pet killer.

But, as my grandkids say, chill out. You don’t need to fret about each and every herb you use—especially when you know some commonsense safeguards. All of my pet patients have taken herbal prescriptions, and I’m very comfortable with herb safety and effectiveness.

Admittedly, some herbs can be toxic to pets—especially when used incorrect­- ly. Cats in particular are extra-sensitive because they have digestive systems that are vulnerable to substances that pose no problems for other critters. And certain herbs shouldn’t be used on any animal at specific times, such as during pregnancy or nursing.

Toxic or not?

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and other sources list several herbs as potentially toxic to animals, including eucalyptus, foxglove, primrose, cherry seeds and leaves, and aloe vera. But this list may not provide the whole picture. For example:

Licorice root may cause sodium retention, a danger to some heart patients. Some reports of licorice toxicity involve potent extracts once used to make candy; whole licorice is the most widely used herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine, valued for its adaptogenic and flavoring effects. Nearly all my animal patients have taken licorice root without ill effects.

Pennyroyal is supposed to repel fleas, so it’s often used in products such as flea collars. But there have been several reports of cats dying after wearing the “all natural” collars. The collars are typically made of distilled pennyroyal essence, which can be fifty times stronger than tea from the whole plant. But I’ve watched my cats in our backyard pennyroyal patch, eating the leaves and rolling with glee much as they do with their other favorite plant, catnip. I haven’t seen any adverse effects from the whole plant, but use caution with the essential oil.

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