Is Umbrella Tree (Schefflera) Toxic to Cats

Umbrella tree (Schefflera spp.) is toxic to cats. The toxic principle is insoluble calcium oxalate crystals which are found throughout the plant. These crystals are bundled together into raphides. When the cat chews on any part of the umbrella tree, the needle-like crystals penetrate the oropharynx causing intense pain, burning and in some cases swelling.

What is umbrella tree?

Family Araliaceae
Botanical name Schefflera spp.
Common names Umbrella tree, Octopus tree, Starleaf, Australian ivy palm,
Parasol plant
Plant type Broadleaf evergreen
Flower colour Yellow, white, red
Native to Australia, New Guinea, Java, China and Taiwan
Toxic property
Toxic to cats
Toxic parts All parts
Severity Insoluble calcium oxalate crystals

 

The umbrella tree is a genus of flowering plants native to tropical Australia, New Guinea, Java, China and Taiwan. The oval-shaped leaves grow in umbrella-shaped clusters of 3 to 12 leaflets.

Umbrella trees are popular houseplants due to their ease of care and unique leaf formation. Their preferred location is bright but indirect light, and water when the top 2-3 cm (1 inch) of soil has dried out. Feed with a slow-release fertiliser every 12 months, or a liquid fertiliser once a month.

Popular species:

  • Schefflera actinophylla (umbrella tree)
  • Schefflera arboricola (dwarf umbrella tree)
  • Schefflera arboricola variegata (variegated dwarf umbrella tree)

Toxicity

Umbrella trees contain insoluble calcium oxalate crystals which protect the plant from herbivory. When any part of the plant is chewed, these needle-sharp crystals penetrate the delicate tissues of the mouth causing pain, burning and in some cases, swelling.

The University of California classes Schefflera spp. as 2 and 4.

  • 2: Minor toxicity – Ingestion of these plants may cause minor illnesses such as vomiting or diarrhea. If ingested, call the Poison Control Center or your doctor.
  • 4: The juice, sap, or thorns of these plants may cause a skin rash or irritation. Wash the affected area of skin with soap and water as soon as possible after contact. The rashes may be very serious and painful. Call the Poison Control Center or your doctor if symptoms appear following contact with the plants.

Clinical signs

Fortunately, most cats will not consume a large amount of plant matter due to its bitter taste and oral pain. Common symptoms of umbrella tree ingestion include:

  • Oropharyngeal pain
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hypersalivation (drooling)
  • Soft tissue swelling of the tongue and mucus membranes
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing (rare)
  • Redness to the skin or mucus membranes due to contact with the irritant sap

First aid

Carefully check the mouth and remove any remaining plant matter and offer the cat a drink of something tasty such as tuna juice, onion and garlic-free chicken stock or milk.

Treatment

Most cases of umbrella tree ingestion are mild and self-limiting. It is always recommended that pet owners contact a veterinarian or pet poison helpline in the event of umbrella tree ingestion. A wait-and-see approach may be recommended if the cat is not showing any clinical signs.

There is no antidote to umbrella tree ingestion, treatment is based on managing presenting signs. This may include fluids to prevent or treat dehydration and electrolyte derangements due to vomiting and antiemetics to control vomiting.

Is it safe to keep an umbrella tree in a home with cats?

Homes with cats or dogs should generally avoid toxic plants to eliminate the risk of poisoning. Kittens and dogs are at greater risk due to their natural curiosity and tendency to chew on non-food objects, including plants. As far as toxicity goes, some plants, such as lilies are deadly to cats and should never be kept in homes or gardens with cats. Other plants such as are mildly toxic. If you do decide to bring an umbrella tree into the home, keep it out of reach to curious pets.

There are plenty of pet-friendly plants for the green thumb to enjoy without the risk of poisoning.

Author

  • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

    Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio