Sago Palm Trees: Poisoning Our Pets

Brian E. Smith, DVM

April 8, 2016


I wish more owners were aware of the danger posed by Sago Palm trees (Cycad Palms). Recently, one of my patients, a beautiful, sweet, five-year-old golden retriever named Savannah, died a few days ago from complications that arose when a Sago Palm tree annihilated her liver 12 months ago. Savannah is one of several dogs that will die this year in Sienna Plantation from Sago toxicity. I know this because I see so many of these cases every single year. Sago palm trees are very common in subtropical/tropical climates like those in the southern United States and Hawaii, and a tremendous amount of houses in Fort Bend County, Texas, have these canine killers in their yards. Sago’s thrive in our area and can live a very long time and become very impressive in size. Apparently, large Sago palm trees have a decent monetary value attached to them. But value is in the eye of the beholder.

If you live in a tropical or subtropical climate and you own a dog, you must be aware of what a Sago Palm tree is. It is certainly one of the leading toxins we deal with in our patients at Sienna Plantation Animal Hospital. Of all the common toxins that we see on a regular basis, I would classify Sago as the most deadly. The toxin causes a condition called Acute Hepatic Necrosis (AHN) to occur in 2-3 days, but in the author’s experience, the plant can ultimately lead to death in a few hours or up to 1 year after ingestion. The initial symptoms of Sago toxicity are usually gastrointestinal (vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite). However, a host of other symptoms can occur before and after AHN occurs, such as bloody stool and bloody vomiting, jaundice, fluid accumulation in the abdomen or extremities, tremoring, seizures, coma, and death. When my patients have Sago toxicity, I always give the owner of the dog a guarded prognosis because the illness is so unpredictable. Many patients will recover if treated quickly and appropriately, however, I have had patients that had no symptoms die suddenly very early during treatment, and others seem to recover only to have re-occurring issues and die a few months later. The impetus for writing this article, Savannah, lived with a completely cirrhotic liver for 1 year after ingesting her killer, only to succumb to her condition just a few days ago.

What can you do to protect your dog from Sago palm trees? If you are a horticulturist you may not want to read on…..

You need to get rid of your Sago palm trees; and do it properly. You cannot ever take the risk that your dog may suddenly decide to munch on the Sago palm that it has been coexisting with all of its life. The risk of having a Sago palm in a yard with your dog is not acceptable. I have personally had to give away two huge Sago’s from my front yard, and my landscaper was only too happy to remove them if I gave them to him. The second part of the answer is the more difficult one because Sago’s want to live, and they want to come back. The Sago and all of its roots need to be removed and relocated and they are prone to regrowth. They seem to pop up in my back yard randomly and have to be removed only to haunt me again the next year. Chopping a Sago down and grinding the stump can lead to problems like they did for Bailey, a gorgeous Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Bailey died at 6 months of age after eating mulch that had bits of Sago in it when the landscaper ground up the owner’s Sago roots when the owner tried to be proactive and get rid of their Sago. Sago palm trees are very prickly and I have heard many anecdote from friends about the war wounds suffered when they transplanted their Sago palm tree to another part of their yard (those friends don’t appreciate it when I tell them they should have transplanted the thing into the trash). A quick Google search on Sago palms offers numerous links to horticultural blogs. If you offer up a free Sago on one of those sites (especially if you have a large Sago), you will probably find a willing volunteer who will come out and dig the little killer up and take it from you and thank you for the opportunity.

What do I do if my dog eats or might have eaten a Sago?

The ASPCA poison control hotline should be in the phonebook of every pet owner 1-888-426-4435. You need to immediately seek veterinary attention either at your regular veterinarian or at an animal emergency room.

If we see a patient quickly we can remove the poison with emesis (we make them vomit) and then prevent it from absorbing with activated charcoal. Many patients will require hospitalization, sometimes repeatedly and numerous kinds of measures are used depending on the symptoms (plasma, colloids, crystalloids, antibiotics, glutathione, N-acetylcysteine, anti-emetics, anticonvulsants, and antacids). Serial blood tests will be run and often we leave patients on long term medications to support the liver and protect the gastrointestinal tract.

There is some incorrect information online that confuses this treatment with an “antidote” for the poison. It is not an “antidote” for Sago toxicity. Please accurately get rid of your Sago and do everything in your power to keep your dog from eating your neighbor’s Sago.