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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 9th June 2011 

I thought about starting this entry with a feeble joke about ticking all the boxes or boxing all the ticks. Ken Bruce, on his BBC Radio 2 morning programme, had, before I switched on, brought up the subject of ticks and people were making contact with their preferred ways of dealing with them.

I don’t have a dog, these days, so I don’t know if ticks have become more of a problem but I know that, in the past in the UK, you were unlikely to come across them unless you went onto farmland. Not so in warmer climates because, when we lived in Zambia, dealing with ticks on two dogs who never left our large garden required constant attention.

It was one of the things we were warned about when we got our first dog from the shelter a couple of days after arriving in the country. We were going for three years (that stretched into over seven) and had agreed before we left the UK not to have any pets. That plan fell apart about five minutes after my wife and I met my new boss for the first time when he stated as fact ‘You must get a dog or you will be burgled’.

In fact, the presence of ticks was about the only warning we were given about threats to dogs in a Zambian garden. The rest was advice about feeding and training. It struck me, yesterday, that no-one mentioned anything to do with plants. Remember, we were in a strange country with plants in the garden that we had never come across before. Surely, some of them must have been toxic but no-one felt the need to warn us against our dog getting poisoned by eating them.

Online you see many discussions about plants that could poison domestic pets and there are plenty of websites with long lists of plants that are capable of making dogs and/or cats very ill. Such sites often offer the solemn warning that you should make sure you don’t have any of the listed plants in your garden.

Laburnum trees

So why, as newlyweds about to acquire our first dog in a strange country, did no-one bother to warn us about poisonous plants? Could it be because, for all the apparent danger, the actual incidence of dogs or cats munching on a growing plant and becoming ill are very small in number?

Apart from one report of a kitten dying after using a laburnum tree as a scratching post, I don’t think I know of any confirmed case of a pet being poisoned in its own garden. And that raises an interesting point.

Most people know, after reports in the press a few years ago, that plants in the Lilium genus, lilies, are toxic to cats. Lilium auratum and L. longiflorum are popular cut flowers and have resulted in cats dying after ingesting the pollen from a bunch of lilies displayed in the house. Yet, I know of no reports of cats being poisoned by contact with lilies growing in the garden. I have had people tell me they removed their growing lilies to stop their cat being poisoned and I asked them if they had also removed the lilies in all the neighbouring gardens that most domestic cats will range over every day.

I do not understand why a cat will ignore a growing plant in the garden but get poisoned by the flowers of that same plant if it is in a vase on the hall table.