What is Desert Rose Poisoning?
While small amounts of this sap have been used medicinally in humans, many African hunters have long used it as a potent poison for taking down large game. The sap is packed full of toxins, including both cardiac glycosides (which disrupt the heart muscle) and cardioactive steroids (which cause the heart rate to slow). These toxins have a major effect on the enzymes that control ions in the body. This can lead to issues in the central nervous system, the gastrointestinal tract, electrolyte levels in the blood, and the function of the heart. While the plant tastes very bitter and only the sap is dangerous, eating small portions of the desert rose poses a great danger to a cat. Even a very small amount of sap can be lethal to a cat because of its small body size.
The desert rose is a flowering evergreen plant that is native to the countries below the Sahara Desert in the continent of Africa. It is known by many names, including the mock azalea, desert azalea, kudu lily, impala lily and the Sabi star. Its Latin name is Adenium obesum. The desert rose can grow up to four feet in height and is easily identified due to its deep violet or red flowers. Because of these beautiful flowers, it is often found in gardens and sold in pots throughout North America. However, despite being relatively common, the sap of the desert rose is deadly.
Symptoms of Desert Rose Poisoning in Cats
Consumption of the desert rose will cause a severe reaction throughout the gastrointestinal tract. Call your vet or local animal hospital immediately once symptoms begin. The cat will need emergency treatment as soon as possible. Signs to watch for include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive drooling
- Dilated pupils
- Bradycardia (slowed heartbeat)
- Ventricular tachycardia (fast heartbeat from irregular electrical activity in the heart)
- Low body temperature
Causes of Desert Rose Poisoning in Cats
Ingestion of any part of the desert rose may lead to the poisoning of a cat. That being said, eating a small amount of the plant does not guarantee that poisoning will follow, as not all plant parts will have sap flowing through them. Cats who are allowed outdoors may have more exposure to the plant as it can be found in many gardens. The desert rose is often sold potted as an indoor plant, and thus may also be found inside the home.
Diagnosis of Desert Rose Poisoning in Cats
If you suspect that there is any chance that your cat may have eaten part of the desert rose plant, rush to the nearest veterinary clinic or animal hospital. Fast action is vital to give your cat the best chance of survival. Often the diagnosis will take place while supportive treatments have already begun. If you have witnessed your cat eating a plant prior to symptoms arriving but are unsure of what the plant was, bring a small sample with you to be identified by the veterinarian.
The vet will perform a complete physical examination of the cat to note all symptoms that exist. You may be asked for your cat's medical history to help differentiate a potential poisoning from other causes of digestive upset and heart rate abnormalities. You may also be asked about plants are kept in and around your home, along with your cat's outdoor exposure. Full blood work will be needed including a complete blood count and a biochemical profile to measure electrolyte levels. Excessively high potassium levels are a good indication that desert rose poisoning may have taken place. While listening to your cat's heartbeat, the vet may note that it is abnormally fast or slow depending on the way that the toxins have affected its body. The temperature of the cat may also be lower than average.
Treatment of Desert Rose Poisoning in Cats
Due to the potency of the desert rose’s sap and the relatively small size of domestic cats, even immediate treatment does not guarantee that the cat will survive. That being said, the earlier the treatment is administered, the better chance that the cat has to recover.
Remove the Contents of the Stomach
By inducing the cat to vomit, or by pumping its stomach with a process called gastric lavage, all remaining plant materials can be removed before the cat can digest them. All contents of the stomach should be carefully disposed of, as they are toxic.
An attempt to regulate the heartbeat of the cat with the use of various medications may help the cat's overall condition. Intravenous fluids may be administered to flush the toxins out of the body as quickly as possible. The cat should be kept warm and comfortable throughout the hospitalization period.
While treatment with digoxin-specific Fab is relatively uncommon, many recent studies have shown that is has a very positive effect on cats who have been poisoned by digitoxins (which the desert rose contains). Finding this medication outside of a human hospital may prove to be difficult.
Recovery of Desert Rose Poisoning in Cats
Unfortunately, most cats who consume even a small amount of the desert rose plant will not survive. This prognosis may change as more veterinarians embrace the use of digoxin-specific Fab in treating cats that have been poisoned. If your cat does survive the initial episode, it is likely that no lasting health problems will remain.
Because of the high mortality rate associated with cats who have been poisoned by desert rose, it is imperative to prevent your cat from eating the plant in the first place. It may be safest to keep it out of your home and garden to prevent exposure. Choosing to contain your cat indoors can also reduce the chance that it will come across the plant in someone else's garden. If you still chose to have this plant in your home, be sure to keep it far out of reach of any pet.