As printed in March 2021 Issue, Written by Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists, Houston’s leading specialty hospital.
Sago palms (also known as Coontie Palms, Cardboard Palms, Cycads, or Zamias) are ornamental plants made up of shiny dark green palm leaves and a thick shaggy trunk which generally sits low to the ground. Sago palms are a popular ornamental plant in the Southern US given their attractive appearance and low maintenance upkeep. Unfortunately these plants are extremely toxic to dogs and cats. Ingestion of any part of the plant is poisonous, however the seeds (nuts) are the most poisonous and easiest for pets to eat (compared to the spiky palms).
The amount of plant ingested as well as any other co-existing illnesses will determine the severity and onset of signs caused by plant ingestion. Vomiting, drooling, diarrhea, or decreased appetite may be noted within minutes of ingestion due to irritation to the gastrointestinal tract caused by the toxic component of the sago palm (Cycasin). If left untreated this can be followed by jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes), bleeding into the skin, gums, urine, or stool, neurologic signs such as stumbling, tremors, or seizures, coma, and potentially death. Not all patients experience gastrointestinal signs, but can still progress to liver damage, clotting disorders, and/or neurologic signs. This means if you believe your pet may have ingested part of a sago palm plant, he/she should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately even if you do not see any of the signs described above.
Unfortunately there are not any specific tests that can be performed to diagnose sago palm poisoning, so your veterinarian will make this diagnosis through a combination of laboratory testing with a history consistent with possible exposure. If your pet is showing any concerning signs your veterinarian will perform generalized bloodwork to evaluate your pet’s liver function and clotting function as well as to exclude other possible causes of your pets signs. This means if your pet is ill and there is any potential exposure to a sago palm, you should inform your veterinarian right away so they can perform diagnostic tests and if indicated, start treatment immediately to try to improve your pet’s outcome.
While there are not any specific diagnostic tests for sago palm poisoning, unfortunately there is not an antidote either. Treatment is mainly supportive and will depend on the severity of your pet’s signs. Early treatment is key for survival which makes a prompt diagnosis essential. Possible treatments include induction of vomiting (if exposure was recent and your pet is not showing any concerning signs), administration of medications to bind any potential toxin remaining in the gastrointestinal tract, anti-nausea medication, liver protectants, and medications to promote clot formation. If your pet is clinically bleeding, a plasma and/or blood transfusion may also be indicated.
Prognosis is dependent on how much toxin was ingested and how quickly treatment is initiated. For pets with very recent exposure where vomiting is induced quickly, the prognosis is fair. Once a pet is showing clinical signs, prognosis is considered guarded. If your pets’ liver begins to fail the prognosis is considered guarded to poor. In some cases your pet may recover and then experience liver failure several months later.
This makes prevention of exposure imperative to prevent a possible tragedy. As all parts of this plant are toxic, it is recommended that people with pets not keep this plant in their yard. Additionally, if you already have a sago palm in your yard, it may be better to fence off the area with the sago palm to keep your pet away instead of digging it up for removal. The turning of the soil that occurs when one is dug up may expose previously buried seeds which your pet can then ingest. Given their potential deadly nature, everything possible should be done to prevent ingestion of this beautiful but toxic plant.