When our uncle died recently, we cleaned out his house and it was quite the job. He had been a bachelor his entire life and had lived alone in that large house since the 1970s. He left behind many things, including some cats. One cat, a calico, was found in the house by the emergency workers and she was brought to the vet. When we got there, a couple of outdoor cats were needing to be fed. One of those cats, orange and white, was our uncle’s buddy and would follow him around; according to the neighbor. We were able to catch him, but not the other grey cat. Then several days after working in the house, we heard a noise when we sat down on the couch.
It turns out another cat had remained hidden for about a week after our uncle’s death, as some water and spilled treats were still around. This kitty is a black and white female who we named Betty. She was the third kitty to be caught and adopted. After bringing them back to our house, she was bullied by her feline housemates. It turned out the other two cats preferred being outdoor kitties, anyway; and so we sent them to a farm. Because of some clawing issues, we thought we might have to get rid of Betty as well. She was also such a scaredy cat that we hadn’t been able to touch her since bringing her home. But, on the morning the other cats were to be sent away, we were finally able to pet her. So, we decided to give her a chance to see how she was without the other kitties. It turns out she is a sweety, if still skittish, although less so over time.
One of the things she loves most in the world, besides constant petting, is eating the leaves of a dracaena plant we’ve had for 30 years. She’d prefer to have several leaves every day, if we’d let her. Even though she has shown no ill effect, we decided to make sure the plant isn’t poisonous. Many websites declare the plant toxic, but it doesn’t seem so straightforward once further investigated. In one of the articles that warned about the plant, it pointed out that there was no evidence of toxicity and yet still the warning was emphasized, just to be on the safe side. It was written that, “However, while the Dracaena is poisonous to cats, they likely won’t consume too much as it’s quite bitter. Furthermore, the plant is only mildly to moderately toxic, so ingestion won’t be deadly. According to the ASPCA, no death from Dracaena plant consumption has been reported to date. […] There are also no lasting effects related to the poisoning” (Donna-Kay, Dracaena Marginata and Cats – Is the Dracaena Toxic to Your Feline?).
So, what is the issue? The main one is the cat might vomit. But then again, cats will vomit from eating grass and licking their own fur. Cats vomiting is not exactly a sign of anything unusual going on. What are some other symptoms of supposed dracaena poisoning? There is loss of appetite, dilated pupils, and lethargy. Hey, wait a second, that just sounds like a drug; similar to marijuana, except losing appetite rather than gaining it. No wonder my kitty loves this plant so much, although she has never gotten lethargic as she is quite spunky. But when she wants her dracaena leaves, she begs for them. And it seems to make her extremely happy. How could anyone be opposed to the happiness of a sweet little kitty? Nancy Reagan says, Just say no! Yeah, whatever. They used to say that smoking marijuana would make people go psychotic, commit crimes, and kill people. Plant chemicals have been under a long war on drugs. Why foist our human delusions onto innocent non-human animals? Why must poor little Betty suffer for the sake of our unfounded fears?
The only possible issue is that the leaves contain saponins, a common plant chemical, specifically a bio-detergent (breaks up lipids and so useful as a soap). They are considered natural toxins, as the purpose of them is to discourage creatures from eating them. They are plant defense molecules, but they are generally harmless to mammals, except at very high levels. Plants are full of all kinds of defense chemicals. Those like Dr. Steven Gundry advise not eating certain plants or preparing them carefully to reduce the concentration of what are called antinutrients. Saponins are simply one variety of antinutrients. The thing is dracaena doesn’t necessarily contain any more plant antinutrients than many common vegetables humans eat, from the brassica family to the nightshade family. We couldn’t see any information that dracaena is a particularly toxic plant or that it has excess antinutrients compared to any other plant.
Technically, all of the antinutrients have toxic qualities and there are cases of people dying from eating large amounts of certain plant foods — a poison is in the dose. But such deaths are rare. Largely, it’s the antinutrient aspect that is the concern. “Like lectins, saponins can be found in some legumes—namely soybeans, chickpeas, and quinoa—and whole grains, and can hinder normal nutrient absorption. Saponins can disrupt epithelial function in a manner similar to lectins, and cause gastrointestinal issues, like leaky gut syndrome” (Melissa Sammy, Should you be eating anti-nutrients?). Saponins are also found in kratom, gynostemma, sarsaparilla root, licorice, avocado, spinach, asparagus, oats, agave, yam, and approximately a million other plants imbibed by humans and other creatures. It’s insects, in particular, that don’t like saponins; as central purpose is as an insecticide.
Cats, humans, and other mammals consume plant chemicals all the time, including saponins. This is an intentional activity, as plant chemicals can also have medicinal effects (ed. by Kazuo Yamasaki & George R. Waller, Saponins Used in Traditional and Modern Medicine). A cat might be drawn to eating saponin-rich leaves in order to kill parasites, suppress viral infections, reverse bacterial overgrowth, and clean out their intestinal system. Some saponins have also been found useful for treatment or reduction of symptoms for many conditions: cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity, fatty liver, etc; and COVID-19. Also, they lower cholesterol, modulate the immune system, and act as an anti-inflammatory. Medicinal plants like ginseng have saponins as active compounds. In fact, dracaena is used medicinally: “Many of the dracaena saponins are steroids and contribute to the use of this plant as a form of traditional medicine in west Africa” (Helga George, Is Dracaena Toxic to Cats or Dogs?).
So, it’s not exactly implausible that cats might use dracaena as a drug, either medicinally or recreationally. Ginseng with its saponins is an extremely popular and effective adaptogen and nootropic. People take ginseng not only because it improves their health but because it gives them energy, improves neurocognitive functioning, and makes them feel good. Yerba mate is another stimulating herb with saponins. All animals use plants to change their internal chemistry and functioning. That is the role of plants, as nature’s chemical factories. Saponins come in two main varieties, triterpenoid and steroidal; the latter of which are structurally similar to some human hormones, and presumably the same applies to other mammals like cats; but the triterpenoids are also biologically active.
But one doesn’t want to be eating large amounts of saponins all the time. Traditionally, people would rinse and soak saponin-rich plant foods or use other methods in order to eliminate some of the saponins and so make them less harmful. Some suggest simply being more careful about which plant foods one eats. Then there are those who advocate removing plant foods altogether. There pretty much isn’t any plant foods that don’t have one antinutrient or another in them. As for saponins, some potential negative effects are — besides as antinutrients: disrupting fat metabolism, increasing intestinal permeability, cleaving cholesterol, disrupting endocrine function, and toxicity to cells. The problem is that, if this is reason for your cat to not eat dracaena leaves, it’s also the same reason for you to not eat hundreds of plant foods you’ll find at the grocery store and farmer’s market.
There is a lot of debate about antinutrients. And the evidence is mixed. But, generally, they aren’t deadly. Or rather, if they’re going to kill you, it will likely come slowly over many years of overconsumption. No one really knows if these plant chemicals are a net benefit or a net risk to human health. We know even less about cat health. Cats in the wild would nibble on all kinds of plants. And various species of felines have lived all over the world for millions of years. They are highly adaptable creatures. Generally speaking, they probably aren’t going to keep eating any plant that makes them sick. Every claim about dracaena being toxic is pure speculation based on absolutely zero knowledge of any proven evidence or mechanism of dangerous toxicity. That isn’t necessarily to say one should be entirely unconcerned. Maybe try to limit your cat’s consumption. But if and when your cat chomps down on a dracaena leaf, you probably don’t need to immediately call your vet in a state of panic. Just watch your cat to see if it’s fine.
It’s interesting that the warnings are so consistently and widely repeated, based on no facts or known cases of harm. The main thing seems to be that some cats act ‘intoxicated’ and therefore they must be in a state of potentially threatening toxicosis. By that logic, you should call 911 every time you see a mildly inebriated person. So, why does this warning get repeated? Most of the websites are from veterinarians or other official websites related to health, toxicity, and pets. In their formal capacity of authority, they are going to be cautious, even when there is no rational reason for caution. If a veterinarian gives out a warning of toxicity about a non-toxic plant, the worse that happens is someone unnecessarily throws away a perfectly fine houseplant. But if a veterinarian tells someone that a plant is safe or simply has no known toxicity and an animal gets sick as a result, that could lead to bad results for their reputation and career. Yet this is in stark contrast to how mainstream health professionals for humans usually dismiss claims that saponins in plants are anything to worry about, even though there are real concerns in some cases.
On a personal level, we do take our cat’s health seriously and would do nothing to intentionally harm her. This is about risk-benefit analysis. The case for risk is weak and minimal, but there are some potential real negative outcomes. Is it any more dangerous than a human drinking a beer or eating spinach? No one knows. From the perspective of the precautionary principle, one might simply remove the plant from the equation, just in case with the idea that it’s better safe than sorry. Then again, Betty just loves her dracaena leaves, one of her few joys in life, right up there with watching chipmunks out the window. But as the responsible human caretakers, we are in the position to make a decision on Betty’s health and happiness. It’s not like she’d likely fall into despair by the loss of her beloved dracaena habit. Even if risk could be calculated, how much risk is pleasure worth? Certainly, pleasure can’t be calculated. If we were making this decision for ourselves about a plant that had saponins in it, we’d definitely think twice before imbibing every day. Yet, we enjoy the buzz from our multiple cups of coffee a day, yet another plant drug that contains antinutrients, including saponins. Too much coffee is probably harmful as well. We are feeling uncertain and undecided about what to do with this dracaena plant.
* * *
6/13/21 – We finally gave into fear-mongering. Or rather we rationally sided with the precautionary principle. We couldn’t find any scientific evidence or even anecdotal evidence that dracaena is harmful for cats. The closest we came to evidence of any sort is that it’s traditionally used as medicine in Africa. And it’s interesting to note that Africa is one of the origins of the modern domesticated cat. Presumably, some of the wild cats of Africa evolved with dracaena. It would be interesting for someone to study the habits of these wild cats. Do they eat dracaena? Do they enjoy it? Do they get ill? Do they die?
Anyway, we don’t know where this “old wives tale” came from. And we don’t know why veterinarians, medical professionals, those in pet-related fields, and animal lovers are promoting this seemingly unfounded rumor and spreading apparent disinfo. But, based on the precautionary principle, we feel compelled to give tentative credence to the notion that such evidence might exist, even if the dozens of websites we looked at cited no such evidence. It’s maybe better safe than sorry. The only downside is Betty’s temporary unhappiness. We removed the dracaena plant yesterday morning and since she keeps looking for where it went. She’ll probably have forgotten about it by the end of the week. So, she’ll have to find a new addiction or replacement. Maybe she’ll, instead, eat more food to fill the void in her life, become fat, and then die of metabolic syndrome.
Jokes aside, we honestly do take seriously the potential risk of plant toxins and antinutrients. We’ve intentionally gone strict carnivore for periods and, even when not carnivore, we limit the kinds and amounts of plant foods we allow in our diet. Tonight, for example, we picked out the pork and left the beans, although we did take a heapful serving of cabbage (the dark leafy greens are a nod to my past paleo diet and the influence of Dr. Terry Wahls). In line with Dr. Paul Saladino and others, we’re really not sure that plants offer much benefit to human health; and probably even less to cat health; although the harm is likely minimal if plant consumption is occasional. Then again, there is also the happiness principle or at least the pleasure principle. We’re certainly not trying to take away the small joys from Betty’s life. But we do follow an anti-addiction philosophy and, admittedly, Betty is acting a bit addicted to her cherished dracaena leaves.
To demonstrate the seriousness of our intentions, we’ve cut out almost all sugar and starches from our diet. The only exception is very rarely some honey, wild berries when in season, and maybe baked goods if made by someone we personally know. The neighbor lady made cookies for taking care of her cat and so we ate one of them. Yet, typically even at birthday parties, we’ll abstain from cake and ice cream because it’s just store-bought crap. Make cake and ice cream from scratch and that is a whole other matter. The thing is we used to be carb addicts and so we are now on an extremely low-carb diet. On a typical day, we get near zero carbs of any sort. Sure, even meat has some carbs in it, if rather meager in amount. The most carbs we typically might get is from cheese, but we tend to eat aged cheese which only has 1 gram of carb per 1 ounce. We still get cravings that we fulfill with stevia, yet another plant, and even that bothers us because it seems to keep the craving alive. We went a period of time without even stevia and it was interesting how some of the simplest of things could taste sweet. Without sweetness to dull the tongue, the carbs in dairy jump out on the palate.
Not exactly related to helping Betty kick her dracaena habit, we went on a caffeine fast this week and it did kick our butt. We were in a state of near continuous semi-unconsciousness for a couple of days, until our body kicked back into gear with producing its own dopamine again. We really hate the feeling of being addicted to anything. Should we force our Puritan abstention on innocent Betty who just wants her next hit of dracaena goodness? Obviously, if she is addicted, she doesn’t mind it. And it’s not like it negatively affects her life or employment. All she does is lay around the house anyway. She seems to prove the war on drugs propaganda. She is a lazy loser who is wasting away her life while more productive citizens carry her weight. But she brings added value to the world in her own way. Oh well. She’ll get over it, hopefully.
Still, it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that the idiotic warnings, however improbable, might have some merit. Still, one has to wonder how there could possibly be zero known evidence, at least unknown to the fear-mongers and rumor-mongers, if it truly was a dangerous plant. Cats, of course, are one of the most common house pets and dracaena is one of the most common house plants. If dracaena was dangerously toxic, there should be thousands or hundreds of thousands of cases of dracaena poisoning of cats. The lack of evidence, in this case, could be taken as evidence of lack. Why should the precautionary principle give deference to irrational fear? It shouldn’t. But there is an off chance that the fear could be rational. After all, how could an endless number of experts be wrong? That is kind of a stupid question for anyone familiar with the replication crisis and public health epidemic related to the field of diet and nutrition, which does overlap with the contentious issue of plant antinutrients.
For whatever it’s worth, maybe Betty and the rest of us will drift back toward the carnivore diet. We did a meat fast (i.e., meat-only diet) this winter and last. And maybe we’ll do it again, particularly eliminating caffeine and stevia as well, if only as another experiment. In doing so, we could join Betty in solidarity by sacrificing all of our plant pleasures, such as our love for avocado and olives. It’s good to clear the system out once in a while to get the sense of how plants are affecting one. Yet it doesn’t mean we have to be anti-herbivore forever. Betty doesn’t seem to like cat grass, but maybe we can find some similar plants she could safely nibble on, if not as addictively as her dracaena plant.