Pet Friendly Plants: A Guide

The peace lily at my parent’s place died a few years ago. Despite living in what we considered to be optimal conditions, the plant shrivelled and perished anyway, leaving behind a sad looking bunch of black twigs. As I scrolled through internet articles in an attempt to diagnose the cause of premature death, my eye caught on a story about the toxicity of this plant to cats and dogs. Before long, I was deep down a rabbit hole of pet poisonous plant stories, thinking guiltily of my beloved animals each time a plant mentioned crosschecked with something in our garden.

I remember feeling alarmed at first – so many of the plants flagged as possibly pet and people toxic could be found in the average Australian green space, especially around the rural backyards and gardens where I grew up playing. It was some time, and many rabbit burrows later before I realised that having these plants in a space didn’t mean certain peril for the animals living there – they are more intelligent and resilient than I could ever have imagined – but it intrigues me that we, and our pets as well, continue to live amongst these plants.

Serial plant muncher, John Deere. Image by Pol Newsome

A recent study revealed that Australian’s have one of the largest pet populations in the world, with more than half of all households (5.7 million roughly) owning at least one animal friend. Of these estimated 24 million pets, the most popular species are dogs, cats, birds and fish, many of them living in city areas where indoor jungles and urban courtyard gardens are common. In regional and rural areas where the green space is much larger, the list of pet pal species found can be a little more unconventional. It’s not unusual to wake up to find a new addition to the family has appeared overnight in cow, sheep or kangaroo formation.

Take John Deere for example, a high-spirited fallow deer from Deepwater in Northern NSW. John arrived late in 2016 when he was just a few days old and he wasted no time establishing himself at the top of the Sherwood farmyard pecking order.

It soon became obvious that his greatest joy in life was blitzing his way through the large country garden – munching off established rose beds, devouring shrubs and flowers and feasting on any new growth that dared to appear.”

Perhaps due to a crisis of identity (he isn’t certain, but he suspects he could be a dog, a chicken or a human) John can be temperamental – he can often be found snapping off anything in the garden that he knows to be especially beautiful and leaving it in a trail on the ground for his owners to mourn later. Luckily for John and his voracious appetite, deer have a much higher tolerance for toxic plants than most other animals. The hellebores, hydrangeas, bulbs and tomato plants that also grow at Sherwood could be problematic for any other species if consumed with the same gusto as John.

Sharing our lives with animal friends, regardless of whether they sleep in our backyard gardens, urban courtyards or on our sofas, is one of life’s greatest joys. They have a way of connecting us with something larger than ourselves; they give us purpose, direction and allow us to convey a softness of emotion that we aren’t always comfortable sharing elsewhere. But with this gift comes a responsibility to our animals – to love and protect them as they do for us, and this must begin with the natural environment we provide for them.

One of John's greatest joys is munching his way through the family garden. Image by Pol Newsome

How do I make my green space pet friendly?
As long as you’re aware of the kinds of plants your pet is susceptible to, what’s growing in your green space and you take the necessary precautions to protect your animal from anything that could be potentially dangerous, there should be no reason you and your pet can’t enjoy a perfectly happy and healthy life together.

Identify your pet
Be aware of what kind of animals will be living around your plants. You’ll need to consider what species they are and if their breed is prone to any specific toxins or illnesses. Are they large or small? Larger doesn’t always mean more tolerant to toxins (cattles, sheep and horses can be the most prone to poisoning) but the size of your animal will affect what barriers you put between them and the potentially toxic plant. How old is your pet? Younger animals are more susceptible to plant poisoning so you’ll need to take extra precautions if you’re bringing home a newborn.

Pet Friendly Plants
If you have the space, it’s worth planting some types of plants and shrubs that your animals will love. Catmints like Walkers Low, Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and Cat Grass (Dactylis glomerata) are great for planting in sunny spots for your cats and dogs to enjoy. If you’re low on space you can pot them up and bring them inside for your pets to munch on.

Guard your pets
Fence off or create a barrier around harmful plants by planting hedges of dense shrubs. Strong smelling plants like rosemary, sage, lavender and plectranthus (known as the scaredy cat plant) will deter your animals so plant these near anything you know to be toxic. Keep harmful indoor and courtyard plants like Devils Ivy and Crassula in pots up high and out of reach from your pet.

Know what to look out for
Familiarise yourself with the signs and symptoms of plant poisoning – even though you may never have to put this knowledge into practice – and if you notice your animal behaving strangely always consult your vet immediately.

This isn’t a full list of pet toxic plants. You can find out more information by contacting your local vet.
Acontinum lycoctonum or Wolfsbane – highly toxic to animals and humans
Aloe vera – contain anthraquinone glycosides which are purgatives and when ingested, can result in vomiting and diarrhoea
Bulbs – including daffodils, jonquils, snowdrops and onions
Brunfelsia or Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – the fruit is especially toxic to puppies and dogs if eaten
Caesalpinia pulcherrima or Poinciana – contains hydrogen cyanide which can be fatal to dogs if consumed
Caladium bicolour or Elephant Ear – causes irritation and swelling of the mouth
Chrysanthemum – contains pyrethrins which are used in pesticides and dog flea and tick medications
Crassula or Jade – can slow the heart ribbon, cause vomiting and, the saddest of all, cause depression in cats and dogs!
Coleus canina or Dogbane
Conium maculatum or Hemlock – highly poisonous to humans and animals. Can be fatal if consumed by sheep, cattle, horses or pigs but the leaves are unpalatable and therefore the plant is not often consumed if other feed is available
Convallaria majalis or Lily of the Valley – if you’ve seen Breaking Bad you’ll know about this one. Contains toxins that affect the heart if consumed
Cycads – especially poisonous to cattle
Digitalis purpurea or Foxglove – contains cardiac glycoside toxins that interfere with the electrolyte balance in the heart and are toxic to humans and animals if consumed
Epipremnum aureum or Devil’s Ivy – can cause severe swelling in mouth if consumed
Hellebores – tuber is toxic to cats, dogs and horses if consumed
Hydrangeas – all parts of the plant are toxic if consumed in excess
Hypericum perforatum or St John’s Wort – causes photosensitisation in sheep, cattle, horses and goats
Lantana camara
Oleander, especially Nerium oleander and Thevetia peruviana
Peace Lily, Lily of the Valley and all types of Lilliums – all parts of the plant and cut flowers are especially toxic to cats.
Rhododendrons and Azaleas – all parts of the plant are toxic if consumed in excess
Sansevieria or Mother in Law’s Tongue – can result in gastrointestinal symptoms if consumed
Solanacaea – especially Atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade and green tomato fruit
Tradescantia albiflora or Wandering Jew – causes skin allergies in cats and dogs
Vinca or Periwinkle – mildly toxic to cats, dogs and horses

Image by Pol Newsome