The Sago Palm Plant Is a Hidden Danger for Your Pets

Pets can die after biting the Sago palm’s leaves, veterinarians say.

ByABC News
May 24, 2016, 10:22 AM

— -- Every pet owner should know this list: azaleas, tulips, chocolates, onions and grapes. Any of these items can make your pet sick. But there’s another dangerous item that most pet owners don’t know about -- and in South Carolina, it’s the top call to Animal Poison Control.

It’s the Sago Palm -- an everyday plant that grows in homes across America. Even taking one small bite of the plant is enough to kill a pet, according to veterinarians.

“Many pet owners don’t know that these can actually be toxic to their dogs and cats,” Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Animal Poison Control Center, told ABC News. “One or two seeds is enough to kill a dog, or even a child.”

A longtime fixture in backyards in the southern U.S., the plant's popularity has spread over the last decade.

“Now you can actually go to your local store or nursery and buy Sago Palms as little potted house plants,” Wismer said. “Many pet owners don't know that these can actually be toxic to their dogs and cats.”

Tiffany and Taylor Smith, of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, say they lost a piece of their heart when their 4-year-old bulldog, Walter, died just two days before Christmas Day in 2014.

“We never knew what happened to Walter,” Taylor Smith said. “The doctor gave us all kinds of different answers. None of them ever made sense.”

But it all made sense when history repeated itself with their new puppy, Wilbur, who suffered seizures just hours after they saw him chewing on a Sago Palm plant.

Taylor Smith said he immediately did a Google search for the plant.

“And the first thing I saw was, poison control and emergency vet,” Smith said.

The Smiths took their dog to the emergency room, where they were given frightening news.

“The veterinarian came in and he said 'he has a fifty-fifty chance,'" Tiffany Smith said. “He was already in stage-three liver failure.”

This time, their dog survived. But the Smiths said it was one of the most difficult things they’ve ever dealt with.

“It’s like losing a family member or a child,” Taylor Smith said.

Over the last 10 years, more than 1,400 dogs have been poisoned by Sago Palms, according to the ASPCA. Thirty-four of the dogs died.

“The fronds and the bark and the roots, all of it is toxic,” Wismer said.

People are getting sick, too. "GMA Investigates" has learned of at least 130 cases of Sago Palm poisoning in humans in the U.S. since 2009. In Florida, more than a quarter of the cases involved children under 5 years old.

But surprisingly, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says it does not have a regulation requiring warning labels on house plants.

In a statement to ABC News, the CPSC wrote: “Data provided to CPSC from hospitals across the country and from the National Clearinghouse for Poison Control Centers indicate that ingestion of household plants by children is infrequent.”

ABC News also found that no federal agency is responsible for warning pet owners about this plant either. That means it’s at each store’s discretion to let you know.

"GMA Investigates" wanted to find out how often Sago Palms were sold without warning labels, so we sent producers to 11 stores across the country on the hunt for those labels.

At one Walmart and one Home Depot, we found warnings on every plant.

But at the five Lowe's stores we visited, we found varied results from store to store. In one New Jersey store, there were no warning labels on any of the Sago Palms we found, but there were warning labels on each such plant we found at a California location of the chain. And at one location in Texas, we found only some Sago Palms for sale had warning labels.

ABC News producers also visited four independent gardening stores, none of which had warning labels on any Sago Palms. We asked a store clerk about it, and she told our producer that the Sago Palm would be harmful to animals if ingested. But when we asked whether the store cautions people if they’re buying the plant, the store clerk replied: “Only if they ask that question.”

That store did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.

According to a statement provided to ABC News, Lowe’s decided last year to start labeling all Sago Palms. “It’s our intention that every Sago Palm available at Lowe’s be labeled with this information. It’s come to our attention that the tags may be removed or come off before they are purchased, so we are looking into ways the tags can be more consistently affixed,” the store wrote.

ASPCA officials say ultimately, buyers need to beware.

“We have to be able to protect ourselves and our pets by knowing what we're bringing into the house,” Wismer said.

Taylor Smith offered the following advice to Sago Palm owners.

“Remove the plants. Take them out of your yard, out of your house," he said. "They are not worth it."

If you think your pet ingested this plant, contact your local veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 1-888-426-4435. This call may incur a charge. People who may have ingested the plant should contact the American Association of Poison Control Centers 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222 for a free consultation.