The ZZ plant, Zamioculcas zamiifolia, is an attractive, low-maintenance species found in countless households. It requires minimal sunlight and infrequent watering to survive. Even bona fide beginners can keep this glossy-leaved houseplant alive with relative ease.
There are many things to love about a ZZ plant. Unfortunately, the effect it can have on cats, dogs, or even people who ingest parts of the plant is not one of them.
ZZ plants’ toxic qualities are caused by calcium oxalate, a compound found in many of our favorite plant species. In this article, I’ll explain why ZZ plants are toxic to cats and other pets. I’ll also cover how serious cases of ZZ plant poisoning can be and what to do if your cat or dog ingests part of this plant.
Are ZZ Plants Toxic
All parts of the Zamioculcas zamiifolia plant are toxic including the leaves, stem, and roots. If part of the plant is chewed or swallowed, this can trigger an immediate response of swelling or pain in the mouth or throat. The plant even poses a risk to humans, in particular young children and toddlers who unwittingly play with the plant and put it in their mouth as they explore their environment.
The Seattle Times reports that Kaitlyn Brown, clinical managing director of America’s Poison Centers in Arlington, Virginia, confirmed their clinic sees around 30,000 cases of children putting various toxic plants into their mouths each year.
ZZ Plants Toxicity To Cats
Yes, ZZ plants are toxic to cats. The good news is that they are not as toxic as many other common houseplants. However, cats are the most likely to present serious symptoms after ingesting any part of the ZZ plant.
Cats are more prone to fall victim to ZZ plant toxicity than most other pets:
- Cats gain closer proximity to houseplants kept on shelves, windowsills, or other elevated surfaces
- Cats tend to have an attraction to houseplants and enjoy chewing on them
- Cats are smaller than dogs, leaving them more susceptible to the adverse effects of toxic plants, from smaller dosages
ZZ Plants Toxicity To Dogs
ZZ plants are also toxic to dogs. The same compound that affects cats, calcium oxalate, is also responsible for causing symptoms in canines.
If you’re a pet owner who also collects houseplants, you already know how hard it is to balance the two. Many common houseplants can be toxic to cats, dogs, and other pets. The ZZ plant is just one example.
I think a cautious pet owner is the best kind to be. It’s only natural to worry about what seemingly innocuous things in your home could potentially cause harm to your four-legged friends. But I also think it’s important to be realistic about these risks and how to manage them.
ZZ plants are toxic if ingested but long-term health effects are rare. I still recommend keeping your ZZ plant out of reach of all animals and children to be safe.
What Part Of ZZ Plant Is Poisonous?
All parts of a ZZ plant are toxic. While some parts may contain more toxins than others, the difference isn’t big enough to be noteworthy.
In practice, ZZ plant poisoning is most likely to occur from contact with leaf or stem tissue. This is simply because these parts of the plant are more accessible to curious pets or more likely to be handled during routine care.
Are ZZ Plants Poisonous To Touch?
Skin irritation is most likely to occur when pruning or propagating a ZZ plant due to the toxic compound, calcium oxalate, found within the plant’s sap. Irritation is unlikely when touching undamaged parts of the plant. It really needs to be a crush or cut section that releases the plant’s fluids.
While symptoms caused by touching a ZZ plant are nothing compared to those triggered by something like poison ivy, it’s still best to avoid them. I particularly recommend precautions if you have sensitive skin or are generally prone to contact dermatitis.
Wear gardening gloves and long sleeves to protect your skin while handling ZZ plants. Keep plants out of reach of children and pets who may accidentally come into contact with the leaves or stems. Wash your hands immediately after handling the plant.
Why Is The Plant Toxic?
The toxic compound found in ZZ plants is called calcium oxalate. You can find this toxin in a large number of popular houseplants.
Most species containing calcium oxalate, including the ZZ plant, belong to the Araceae family. Some other examples you may have in your home include:
- Schefflera (Umbrella Plant)
- Chinese evergreen
Calcium oxalate crystals are incredibly sharp. I like to compare these crystals to tiny pieces of fiberglass. When calcium oxalate crystals come into contact with skin or sensitive membranes found in the nose, mouth, or digestive tract, they create microscopic cuts and trigger symptoms like pain and swelling.
ZZ plants contain insoluble calcium oxalate. Insoluble calcium oxalate can’t be absorbed by the body, so it passes through the digestive tract when ingested.
Soluble calcium oxalate, on the other hand, can be absorbed by the body and cause serious damage to the kidneys, liver, and other vital organs. Plants like rhubarb and shamrock contain soluble calcium oxalate and are much more dangerous in terms of toxicity. Ingesting soluble calcium oxalate can be fatal for cats and small dogs.
How Toxic Is The Plant To Cats
ZZ plants are mild to moderately toxic to cats depending on how much is ingested. Cats that are older or already struggling with health issues may develop more severe symptoms.
I don’t know of any confirmed cases of ZZ plant poisoning causing death in a cat. However, there is always a chance that the combination of a pre-existing condition and a particularly high dose of the toxin calcium oxalate could be life-threatening.
What Happens If A Pet Consumes The Plant
Calcium oxalate is released when a cat (or any creature) chews on a ZZ plant. This calcium oxalate can get on the skin as well as into the mouth and, eventually, the entire digestive tract.
Ingested calcium oxalate causes irritation to almost any part of the body it touches. Most cats experience irritation of the gum or tongue first. This can progress to throat and stomach irritation if enough of the ZZ plant was swallowed.
If calcium oxalate enters the respiratory system, similar irritation can occur. Irritation within the respiratory system poses a bigger risk than that in the digestive tract.
Wherever the calcium oxalate ends up, your cat’s discomfort will subside once the toxin finishes passing through its system. It may take a couple of days for your cat to feel 100% better, especially if the irritation was severe.
Symptoms After Eating ZZ Plant
The symptoms of ZZ plant toxicity vary depending on how much calcium oxalate was ingested and which parts of the body it has come into contact with. There can also be differences in how one cat’s body responds to the toxin versus another.
According to Pet Poison Hotline, the most common symptoms associated with eating part of a ZZ plant include:
- Pain around the nose and mouth
- Lack of appetite
Any veterinary professional can tell you that one of the hardest parts of treating animals is that they can’t always communicate their symptoms to us. Keep in mind that your cat or dog may show vague signs of discomfort after touching or ingesting part of a ZZ plant. For example, a cat pawing at its mouth might be experiencing pain, swelling, or itching of the tongue and gums.
It’s also a good idea to monitor the plants inside your home that pets and children might have access to. There have been many times when I wouldn’t have known my cats were chewing on a plant if not for discovering fresh teeth marks on the leaves. If you make such a discovery in your own home, you can then monitor for symptoms as needed and relocate the plant to prevent future access.
What To Do If You Suspect Your Pet Is Sick
A local veterinarian is your best resource when it comes to any health problems that befall your cat, dog, or other pets. Ingesting part of a toxic houseplant is just one scenario where making a vet appointment is a good idea.
In the vast majority of cases, a cat eating part of a ZZ plant doesn’t call for a trip to the emergency vet clinic. I do, however, recommend making an appointment for the earliest available time and continuing to monitor your pet’s symptoms with guidance from a veterinarian.
If your cat shows any signs of respiratory distress — e.g., labored breathing, wheezing, etc. — then the situation is a bit more urgent. These symptoms are very rare in cases of ZZ plant toxicity but should be taken seriously when they occur.
If your cat shows signs of skin irritation from coming into contact with the plant, washing its face and/or paws may help. Provide plenty of fresh water that your cat can use to wash the toxins from their mouth, throat, and digestive system. Your veterinarian may offer other at-home treatments to ease your cat’s discomfort.
One thing you should never do without veterinary oversight is induce vomiting after your cat consumes part of a ZZ plant. Inducing vomiting at home can easily do more harm than good.
Will a Pet Survive Eating ZZ Plants?
Fatal ZZ plant toxicity is extremely rare, even in domestic cats. If an otherwise healthy cat ingests part of a ZZ plant, it’s very likely to make a full recovery.
Symptoms of ZZ plant toxicity typically affect the mouth, nose, and digestive tract. In some cases, respiratory irritation also occurs. Respiratory symptoms, which can include difficulty breathing, are potentially fatal and should be treated immediately.
The fact that ingesting a ZZ plant is unlikely to cause serious health consequences for your cat should offer some peace of mind. I still strongly recommend visiting your veterinarian if your cat ingests part of a ZZ plant or any other potentially toxic houseplant. While their symptoms may not be fatal, your vet can provide treatment to reduce pain and ease symptoms as quickly as possible.
Keeping Cats Away From ZZ Plants
Unlike extremely toxic plants like lilies, ZZ plants can be relatively safe for cat-loving homes as long as their owners take some basic precautions. If you can keep your cat away from your ZZ plant, it’s possible for the two to coexist.
Here are a few tried-and-true strategies that will help keep both your ZZ plant and your furry friends safe:
1. Apply Citrus Spray To Plant Leaves
Citrus is a common deterrent used to keep cats away from houseplants and other things they shouldn’t chew. The main theory is that citrus is extremely pungent to cats’ sensitive noses.
You can apply lemon, lime, or orange juice mixed with water to the leaves of your ZZ plant. There are also pre-mixed sprays that can be purchased at many pet stores for this exact purpose. Note that you will need to re-apply the citrus mixture often or else it will wear off.
In my experience, some cats are more put off by the smell of citrus than others. Your mileage may vary. I recommend placing your ZZ plants somewhere your cats can’t easily reach in addition to using citrus treatments.
2. Place Houseplants Out Of Reach
Cats can’t chew on plants that they can’t reach. This is my preferred solution for houseplants that I don’t want my cats to touch.
The most secure option is to keep your plant collection in a separate room that your pets don’t have access to. If you only have a couple of smaller plants in need of protection, an indoor greenhouse should do the trick.
Shelves may work in some cases. However, I also know of many cats that will jump 6+ feet in order to reach something they want.
Some houseplants grow well in hanging baskets. While ZZ plants don’t have trailing vines like pothos or strings of pearls, you can still keep them in a hanging planter if it prevents your cats from accessing the foliage.
3. Provide Safe Alternatives
Many cats chew on houseplants because they crave certain vitamins in the foliage. Others do it because they lack enrichment within their home environment. Either way, providing your cat with a safe alternative to chew on might deter them from eating your ZZ plant.
There are many cat-safe plants that can be grown indoors. A few options I recommend include catnip, cat grass (a mix of barley, rye, wheat, and other grasses), and valerian. My go-to pet stores all sell seed mixes for cat grass, so check your local store to see what they have in stock.
While cat grasses and similar plants are generally safe, you should still monitor your cat’s consumption. Make sure to use non-toxic soil and avoid the use of fertilizers on these edible plants.
Keep in mind that your cat won’t automatically know which plants it can chew on versus which it can’t. Cat-approved plants should be kept somewhere accessible — preferably at ground level — while your ZZ plant is kept far out of reach. If your cat tends to overindulge, consider putting edible plants out for short periods during the day.
Can You Make ZZ Plants Pet Safe?
Nothing you can do will make a ZZ plant 100% safe for cats, dogs, and other pets. The only effective solutions are to remove access to the plant or get rid of it altogether.
Since ZZ plant toxicity is relatively low, I think it’s fine to keep these plants as long as you take steps to prevent your pets from reaching them. You shouldn’t leave a ZZ plant unsupervised on a kitchen counter or floor-level container. Use common sense to keep your pets safe while continuing to enjoy your houseplants.
Children’s Health Queensland Hospital – Zanzibar gem (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
Seattle Times – Keep small kids away from these houseplants
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – Plants That Irritate
Pet Poison Helpline – Oxalates (Insoluble) in Plants
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.