Are Bonsai Trees Poisonous to Cats?

When you decide to add a new cat to your family, you are accepting responsibility for its health and well-being. Cats are lovable pets and can add so much to your life. They offer companionship, entertainment and affection. They can also be inquisitive.

If you have a bonsai tree in your home, you can be sure that your new cat will investigate it thoroughly. It will sniff it, paw it and maybe even try to play with it. You will get the same reaction if you bring home a new bonsai tree when you already have a cat. There is every possibility that your cat will try to chew the leaves of your bonsai tree. This is not to be encouraged, because bonsai trees can be poisonous to cats. You will need to be armed with much more information before allowing your cat in the same space as your bonsai tree.

Before going into greater detail about the toxicity of bonsai trees, let us just learn a bit more about bonsai itself.

What are Bonsai Trees?

Bonsai is not a type of tree. It is an art form that was mastered in Japan thousands of years ago. Bonsai involves growing a tree in such a way that it remains a miniature tree, but still is recognizable as whichever species of tree it is. Almost any species of tree can be grown according to accepted bonsai methods.

These methods include pruning and shaping the tree so it takes on an aesthetically pleasing form. To keep the tree small, the roots are pruned, and it is grown in a shallow container. Bonsai trees can live just as long as their full-size cousins.

Bonsai trees can add beauty, spirituality and good luck to our homes. Many people keep an indoor bonsai tree, although they do need considerable care and attention. In Japan bonsai trees are usually kept outside. Indoor bonsai is a development that has grown up in western countries.

If you have incredible patience, you might be tempted to begin with a tree seedling and create your own bonsai. It might be years before you have a lovely bonsai to display. Most folk buy a ready grown bonsai at a garden store or center, or from a specialist bonsai grower.

When you bring a bonsai tree home, you will need to have the appropriate conditions for it to thrive. Bonsai need controlled humidity, adequate light and temperatures that vary between summer to winter. Watering requires special attention as overwatering can cause a bonsai to die.

Let us then consider the problems you might face when you also have a cat.

Are bonsai trees poisonous to cats?

The short answer is that it depends on which species of tree you have growing as a bonsai. Some bonsai trees are quite harmless, while others are extremely toxic. As almost every tree can be grown as a bonsai, it would be quite easy to choose one not realizing that you are putting your cat at risk.

What bonsai trees are poisonous to cats?

There are some bonsai trees that are very toxic to cats. This list, and it is quite a long one, includes the majority of them:

1. Sago Palm Tree

This is the number one most poisonous tree if you keep any pets. Cats especially are susceptible to the poison in every part of the tree. The leaves, stems and roots are all toxic to cats. The worst offending part, though, is the seed. Contained in the seed is a chemical called cycasin. Cycasin is toxic in the extreme.

Within 15 minutes of eating any part of the seed – or indeed other parts of the plant – your cat will begin to display any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Complete loss of appetite

2. Azalea

Despite being a lovely tree to adapt as a bonsai, the azalea is very toxic. The azalea is a type of rhododendron and they are also popular as bonsai. Azalea is not just toxic to cats, it is toxic to humans too, so take care.

Every part of the azalea is poisonous – roots, leaves and stems. Your cat will show symptoms similar to those listed for the Sago Palm. However, they may also show two additional symptoms:

  • Trembling 
  • Falling into a coma

3. Jade (also known as Baby Jade or Chinese Rubber Plant)

As it has several common names, it might be easy to buy one of these bonsai not realizing that it is among those that are toxic to cats. The exact nature of the toxin contained in the jade plant is unclear. More research is needed to establish exactly what the poison is.

Jade plants are often sold when quite small, and they then grow taller later in their life. They have a similarity to some succulents. Don’t let this confuse you. They are a toxic plant and should be treated with caution.

Every part of the plant is poisonous to cats, and will cause symptoms like:

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  • Vomiting
  • Slowing heart rate
  • Inability to stand or walk due to their muscle function failing

4. Plum tree

You might be thinking “surely not” when seeing plum trees on this list. Plums are a favorite fruit for many people, and eating them will do humans no harm. Not so for cats. All parts of a plum tree are poisonous to cats.

The poison in plum trees – including the fruit – is cyanide. The dosage is very slight so humans are not affected. However,even a low level of cyanide can prove fatal to cats.

The symptoms your cat might suffer are:

  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Panting
  • Distress

5. Cherry tree

A cherry tree also has traces of cyanide in it leaves, roots and stem. There is, however, no cyanide in the fruit so it differs from the plum in this respect. 

As the level of cyanide in cherry tree parts is so low, your cat would have to ingest quite a lot to become ill. Your cat might show some of these symptoms if poisoned by cherry:

  • Breathing problems
  • Dilated pupils
  • Collapse

6. Fig tree (Ficus)

The fig tree is another tree that is safe for humans but toxic to cats. Every part of the fig is poisonous, although usually a cat will just become sick rather than die. Symptoms are:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritation of the skin

Other Trees

There are more trees that are toxic to cats, but where the symptoms are similar to those given above but are usually a little less severe. They include:

  • Norfolk Island Pine
  • Persian Lilac
  • White Cedar
  • Indian Rubber Plant
  • Jerusalem oak
  • Buddhist Pine
  • Desert Rose
  • Chinese Elm
  • Peach Tree
  • Apricot Tree

What bonsai trees are safe for cats?

It is known that the following bonsai are safe for cats. It would be wise to purchase one of these if you have a cat in your home, or intend to get a cat soon.

1. Juniper

2. Japanese Maple

3. Fukien Tea Tree

4. Bamboo Palm

5. Hibiscus

6. Christmas cactus

7. Dwarf Umbrella Trees

Are bonsai leaves poisonous?

As we have seen some bonsai trees have leaves that are poisonous to cats. Generally, if you avoid the trees listed above as being dangerous, then your cat will be safe. Bonsai trees are usually chosen for their visual appeal, but the safety of your cat should be paramount in your thoughts when deciding which tree to buy.

What to do if my cat eats bonsai leaves?

If you have a tree listed as poisonous to cats, then you must act quickly if you think your cat has eaten leaves from the tree. 

If your cat still has bits of leaf in its mouth, gently clear it away. With luck it may not have swallowed any. If you can prevent your cat from chewing the leaves, do so. The poison in most leaves is in the sap. This will be released by chewing.

The next step must be to contact your veterinarian. They will know exactly what to do and will be able to treat your cat. Your vet will need to know exactly the species of the tree that the cat has eaten. Do not be general in your information. For example, it is no good saying “a pine”. Your vet must know which type of pine has been ingested. 

Your vet might prescribe antibiotics in mild cases, or just recommend a change in diet. Cats can be fussy eaters, and you may need to tempt your pet back to eating normally.

If you cannot get your cat to a vet, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has an emergency helpline for poisoning cases. The telephone number is 1-888-426-4435. They will need the same information that you should give to your vet. They can then advise and put you in touch with a vet if necessary.

If you are not sure what species of tree you have, or if you have one you believe to be non-toxic, you must still take action. Preferably, your cat should not eat leaves from any bonsai. If it does, get along to your vet, just to be on the safe side. 

If your cat does chew and swallow some bonsai leaves and then coughs and retches, there may be some leaf stuck in its throat. Again, get your cat along to your vet. No-one wants to watch their cat choke to death! 

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How to keep cats away from bonsai trees.

Generally speaking, few owners of bonsai who also have cats report problems. Mostly, their cats don’t seem very interested in the bonsai trees. Of course, that doesn’t mean that your cat will be similarly bored by bonsai! 

The simplest way to keep your cat away from your bonsai collection is to keep the trees where the cat cannot go. Most bonsai trees can be kept outdoors, so displaying them in a greenhouse or cold frame is an option. Failing that keep them in a different room where your cat does not go.

Sometimes physical separation is not possible, so you will need to try some different tactics. Cats are not fond of the smell of citrus. Placing fresh orange peel around your bonsai might deter your cat. Alternatively use an orange or lemon-scented spray. Some bonsai enthusiasts have had success growing a bowl of catnip and placing it near the bonsai. This will deflect the cat’s interest away from the bonsai.

If your bonsai is outdoors, and your cat is reluctant to leave them alone, then a barrier will be necessary. What type of barrier will depend on the shape and style of your garden. Cats can easily jump over a low fence or wall. Similarly, placing the bonsai up on a wall or shelf will not necessarily be enough to keep them away. If you know you cat and its habits, then you will be better placed to arrange a setup where both the cat your and your bonsai are safe.

If your cat is determined you might have to invest in a scarer. These come in many types. Choose one that suits your circumstances. Another option is a chemical cat deterrent spray. These can work well, but need to be replenished after rain or a period of time.

Check out this awesome cat repellent kit on Amazon

Some related questions

Q. If I have to place my bonsai outdoors, will it survive?

A. The chances of your bonsai surviving will depend on the species you are growing. Trees that normally growing in temperate climates will be fine. In fact many evergreen and deciduous trees prefer to live outdoors. If you are growing a bonsai that normally grows in a tropical climate, then it will need to be kept indoors.

Q. My cat does not want to eat my bonsai, but just likes playing near it. Will it survive if it is knocked over?

A. Cats can be impetuous and suddenly run, jump or chase. If they knock your bonsai over or off its shelf, then you will need to examine it carefully for damage. With luck you may just suffer a broken container. In this case, repot your bonsai in a new one. When repotting, make sure the soil is well-watered.

If your tree has other damage, then some careful pruning to remove broken branches or roots may be necessary. Damaged leaves can be taken away too. This treatment might leave your tree displaying a different shape, but a healthy tree will recover in time.

Q. My bonsai is looking sickly. Is my cat at greater risk from a diseased bonsai?

A. It does depend on the nature of the problem. If your tree has been overwatered or underwatered, then careful attention will solve the problem. Your cat will not be at any greater risk than before.

However, if your bonsai has contracted a disease, you will need to establish which disease it is suffering from. It is best to isolate your sickly bonsai, keeping it away from other plants. Your tree will need time to recover once you have treated it, and keeping it out of your cat’s way is an excellent move. This should prevent your cat rubbing against it or accidentally ingesting any diseased leaves.

Bonsai trees that have become infected need particular care. Give the tree the best chance of survival by isolating it. Both your cat and your bonsai will then be safe.

Summary

Bonsai trees are an incredibly beautiful and spiritual. This makes them a wonderful choice for any spiritual person to keep in their homes. However, if you have cats like me, then it is worth considering since certain bonsai trees are toxic to cats.

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