Sago Palm Poisoning

By Renee Schmid, DVM & Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT Pet Poison Helpline; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Sago palms are pretty plants but beware, they pack a deadly punch for pets. The popular sago palm enhances outdoor landscapes in warmer areas of the U.S. and serves as indoor decor across the country.

Also called Coontie palms, Cardboard palms, Japanese cycad, Cycads, or Zymias, sago palms are readily available for purchase in stores ranging from small nurseries to the garden sections of large home improvement stores. These plants are in the Cycad/Cycas, Microzamia or Zamia genus. Unfortunately, pet owners may not realize that the potted plant they buy today may kill their cat or dog tomorrow. Each year, Pet Poison Helpline receives hundreds of calls regarding ingestions of sago palm related plants throughout the country.

What is the toxin source in the sago palm?

All parts of the sago palm are poisonous, but the seeds (nuts) are the most toxic to pets and are easier for pets to eat than the prickly fronds. Ingestion of even a small amount of the plant can cause serious effects. The sago palm contains several toxic compounds. These compounds can cause very severe gastrointestinal upset, affect the nervous system, or damage the liver.

Clinical signsSigns of poisoning may occur as early as 15 minutes following ingestion, although in some cases, signs may not appear for several hours.

Gastrointestinal irritation is very common. Depression, drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea may be the first signs of poisoning. These signs may seem minor, but if left untreated, much more serious effects, including neurologic signs and liver failure, may develop. Neurologic signs may include weakness, wobbly gait, tremors, or seizures. Liver damage may be delayed for 1-3 days. In addition to the signs above, pets with liver damage may have dark urine, yellow coloration of the eyes or skin (icterus), an enlarged abdomen, increased drinking and urination or discolored feces. Liver failure may cause low blood glucose levels and decreased blood clotting ability resulting in bleeding both externally (nose bleeds, blood in the urine or stool) and internally. If these signs are not recognized and treated, death may occur due to blood loss and shock.

What is the diagnosis?

Blood work showing liver damage may help in diagnosing toxicity. If you believe your pet has ingested sago palm, it is important to call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline, a 24/7 animal poison control center, at 1-800-213-6680 right away to have the risk of poisoning assessed.

What is the treatment?

Early decontamination and treatment decrease the risk for serious effects. If plant ingestion occurs within a few hours of treatment, the veterinarian may induce vomiting. Inducing vomiting at home should never be attempted without the advice of a veterinarian. It may cause severe irritation of the stomach. Once vomiting is controlled, activated charcoal may be administered. This can decrease absorption of the toxins by the gastrointestinal tract. Activated charcoal should only be administered by a veterinarian. Otherwise, aspiration into the lungs and life-threatening changes in sodium levels may occur.

Antacids, anti-nausea medications and gastrointestinal protectants are commonly administered. Hospitalized care is often needed. Fluids may be administered under the skin or intravenously. A medicine called N-acetylcysteine can decrease the chances for liver damage. Other medications such as liver protectants and Vitamin C may also be given.

If liver damage occurs, more intensive therapy is needed. Liver damage increases the risk for long term effects or even death. Pets with liver damage can develop an increased chance of bleeding. If bleeding occurs, oxygen supplementation or a blood transfusion may be needed. These pets may also need Vitamin K1, plasma transfusions, or dextrose in their fluids to keep blood glucose levels stable.

What is the prognosis?

As with all poisoning cases, early detection and treatment increases the rate of success. The outcome depends on many factors including the initial health of the pet, amount ingested, and time to treatment. With early treatment, pets are less likely to develop long term effects. Severely affected animals that survive may have permanent liver damage. Unfortunately, death may occur when severe signs are present or when treatment is delayed.

How can I prevent Sago Palm poisoning?

The only sure way to prevent sago palm poisoning is to keep pets away from the plant altogether. This may mean keeping sago palms off of your house plant list.

"The only sure way to prevent sago palm poisoning is to keep pets away from the plant altogether"

Some retail outlets and plant nurseries sell plants with warning labels, but not all do. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission does not have regulations in place that require warning labels on house plants, so it is important for pet owners to be aware of the dangers of sago palms. These beautiful plants may not be worth the danger they present to your pets.