We live in a strange world where we spend a lot of money and effort trying to escape the outdoors, only to expend even more time and money bringing the outdoors inside with us.
This extends to both plants and animals, which can lead to a lot of complications. In fact, the vast majority of houseplants on the market are toxic to pets, and special care needs to be taken to keep our furry companions safe.
One popular plant is the fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata). Known for its distinctive leaf shape, this plant is often grown in the busier parts of homes.
This means you’re likely to expose your cat or dog to it. But are fiddle-leaf figs safe around pets, and if not, what should you know to keep your pets safe?
Are Fiddle Leaf Figs Safe For Cats?
Unfortunately, fiddle-leaf figs are highly toxic to cats (and can make dogs very ill).
This isn’t due to any actual poison but rather a substance is known as calcium oxalate.
What Is Calcium Oxalate?
Calcium oxalate is a calcium salt derived from oxalic acid that can be found in more than 1,000 plant genera.
While we’re still learning about this substance’s function in plants, it’s currently believed to be a byproduct of detoxifying calcium. Bacteria and fungi eventually break down the oxalate into calcium carbonate.
There are two types of calcium oxalate crystals: soluble and insoluble. However, the soluble can often be more dangerous, and both are dangerous to your cat.
Oddly enough, humans eat a lot of plants containing calcium oxalate in our daily diet.
However, the calcium oxalate crystals can be toxic even to adult humans, with the effects becoming more severe the smaller the creature consuming these crystals gets.
Why Are Calcium Oxalate Crystals Dangerous?
While plants have a way of dealing with calcium oxalate, the crystals can’t be digested by animals.
In fact, calcium oxalate crystals are a factor in 76% percent of kidney stone cases in adult humans.
In children and larger dogs, a sufficient dose can cause many symptoms, from vomiting and nausea to coma in extreme cases.
But cats (and toy dog breeds) are so small that the crystals can easily prove fatal.
This means that allowing your cat to chew on a fiddle leaf (or another Ficus, for that matter) can be a deadly mistake.
Symptoms Of Fiddle Leaf Fig Ingestion
There are a few different problems caused by calcium oxalate in cats, one of which is the formation of oxalate bladder stones.
Over the past 40 years, cases of this once rare health issue have risen by 30% percent, possibly in part due to the higher number of houseplants and the poor quality of dry cat food.
Symptoms of oxalate bladder stones include:
- Difficulty urinating
- Frequent urination
- Blood in the urine
- A habit of urinating outside the litterbox
These stones are more likely to form in older or obese cats and certain purebreds, such as:
Insoluble calcium oxalate crystals are grouped into bundles called raphides, which are broken apart if your pet munches on a plant containing them.
This can lead to the following:
- Pawing at the mouth
- Oral irritation
If sap containing the crystals gets in your pet’s eyes, it can result in photosensitivity, swelling, and severe pain.
Soluble crystals are absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and can bind with the body’s natural calcium, resulting in hypocalcemia.
They can also lead to kidney damage, diarrhea, malaise, tremors, and weakness, in addition to all the symptoms caused by the insoluble form.
These symptoms may not manifest for 24 to 36 hours and demand immediate attention to prevent permanent bodily harm.
When you suspect your cat has been munching on a fiddle-leaf fig, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.
In the case of oxalate bladder stones, the vet will perform a urinalysis and bloodwork to confirm the presence of stones, then surgically remove them.
Feeding your cat canned food (or raw meat, when possible) can help reduce the risk of oxalate bladder stones forming. The extra hydration may also reduce the symptoms of consuming calcium oxalate-rich plants.
While scary, many cases of ingesting small amounts of insoluble calcium oxalate can be treated at home under a vet’s guidance.
However, soluble crystals will often require the cat to be admitted, and more extreme treatments will be needed to protect the kidneys and other organs from permanent damage.
Keeping Your Cat (and Plant) Safe
The good news is that you don’t have to choose between a cat and a fiddle-leaf fig.
One easy solution is to place some potted plants around the base with a strong smell.
Cats and dogs use their sense of smell to determine if plants are poisonous, and a strong-smelling plant barrier will often be enough to keep pets away from oxalate-rich plants.
However, note that super chewers will sometimes ignore their senses and nibble anyway.
In such cases, you will want to create a barrier of some sort to keep your pet from having access.
This can involve placing the plant on a raised stand, in a corner with a baby fence, or keeping the plant in a room the pet can’t access.
For example, if you have a room where the fiddle-leaf can get proper lighting that has doors, consider keeping those doors closed so the cat can’t be in without supervision.