Cat owners are familiar with limiting their houseplant choices to blooms and leaves that do not threaten the health of their cats. Questions have arisen, however, about the potential danger of the Codiaecae family, commonly known as crotons, popular plants known for colorfully veined leaves. Their omission from more than one list of plants that are potentially harmful to cats may reflect the recent growth in their popularity and variety. It may be linked to characteristics of the croton plant's effect on humans, usually short-lived. Cat-owners, however, are advised to exercise caution in introducing croton plants into areas inhabited by cats.
Concerned owners and parents have compliled a number of lists of plants that are toxic to cats, dogs, and small children (see References), because colorful or trailing leaves, dazzling flowers, and even the pots of dirt they occupy can attract and harm pets and babies, especially in a relatively plant-free environment. Visual stimulation and boredom play a part in a cat's interest. It may be attracted by the movement of leaves and flowers, and a great way to explore a potential new plaything is with the mouth.
Cat owners routinely employ a number of strategies to keep plants and pets safe from each other: banning any potentially harmful plant from the house; hanging plants in baskets or from brackets which cats cannot reach; placing plants on small tables or stands that have no room for a curious cat; and trimming any trailing parts whose movement might seem an invitation to play.
The North Carolina State University Extension Service describes the croton family of plants as poisonous, and the active toxic ingredient as "croton oil," which can function as a strong purgative, like castor oil, and a skin irritant, producing pain and blisters. A note tht accompanies the listing for Codiaeum variegatum, or the croton we know best as a houseplant and tender summer annual, states "toxic only when consumed in large quantities." It notes that dermatological effects tend to be brief. This suggests a possible reason why crotons were not included in the ASPCA toxic/nontoxic database. The fact that the plants are typically not fatal to humans does not mean, however, that the plants won't pose a potential danger to a cat who consumers a considerable quantity.
Take an ounce-of-prevention stance toward cats and houseplants. Do all you can to keep them apart. Apply common sense: What may be irritating to a 150 lb. human can be devastating to a 10 lb. cat. Provide your cats with lots of play- and climbing alternatives, so that houseplants seem less like potential toys. Consider cat-friendly plantings indoors: ask your nursery for a small amount of grass seed and potting soil in the fall; enliven your cat's winter menu (and some say digestive health) with indoor grass grown in a cup. Plant nepeta, or cat mint, in a sunny window; you can enjoy its gray-green leaves and blue flowers; your cat can nibble on a catnip relative--a mildly entertaining snack rather than a mouthful of intoxicating chaos!
Other Safety Measures
Learn the names of your houseplants. Different kinds of plants can have very different toxic ingredients, and the name of your plant will simplify a diagnosis immeasurably if you have to call your vet. Post the ASPCA Poison Control Center number and any regional help-numbers along with the other emergency phone numbers you keep by the phone. (Note: however, that the ASPCA number is not a free service; have a charge-card number handly.) Get your pet to the vet immediately if illness appears to be plant-related, and take part of the plant with you--toss the whole pot into a plastic bag so you can move quickly.