As the holidays approach, many of us are busy making our homes festive and alive with holiday charm. Being a veterinarian and a master gardener, I am often asked about the toxicity of some of the plants seen around this time of year. First and foremost, always call your veterinarian or an animal emergency clinic if your pet consumes any plant you are not sure about. The ASPCA also has a wonderful website listing toxic and nontoxic plants at www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control and there is also Pet Poison Hot line.
The plant most commonly inquired about is the Poinsettia. Most folks think they are highly toxic, but in fact, they are actually considered to be only mildly toxic. The ingestion of them may cause slight stomach upset or skin irritation upon contact with the milky sap that contains diterpenoid euphorbol esters. These esters can be slightly irritating to the skin and stomach lining. In most cases the clinical signs are self-limiting and rarely require a trip to the doctor, but to be safe … best advice is to keep them up off the floor and away from curious furry friends.
Holly (Ilex sp.) and Mistletoe are a little bit more concerning. Holly contains saponins, a glycoside that will cause a soap-like froth. They receive their name from the soapwort plant Saponaria. The root from the soapwort plant was used to originally make “natural” soap. They can cause a bit of vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy if ingested. Other plants containing saponins that might be found at the holidays include Christmas Rose (Hellabores niger), Asparagus Fern (Asparagus officinalis) and daisies (Bellis perennis).
Mistletoe, both the American variety (Phoradendron serotinum) and the European variety (Viscum album) are toxic, with the American being slightly less. These plants contain polysaccharides and alkaloids that can cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea and in large quantities can cause the heart rate to drop, a drop in blood pressure, inability to walk and collapse. They can even lead to seizures and death but only if very large quantities are consumed.
Amaryllis and Paper Whites contain a toxin lycorine and other phenanthridine alkaloids, according to the ASPCA. Signs of ingestion can include drooling, vomiting and a slight drop in blood pressure. Bulbs are the most dangerous. Luckily, the plants are very bitter tasting. However, some dogs are very determined — so again, keep them out of reach.
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is nontoxic to both cats and dogs.
Lilies are one of the deadliest plants to cats and are often found in many holiday floral arrangements. Those lilies belonging to the Lilium and Hemerocallis contain a water-soluble toxin that targets the kidneys. The toxin is found in all parts of the plant; pedals, pollen or even the water from the vase can result in severe acute kidney failure. These plants should be kept far away from our four-legged friends. Seek immediate care for your pet if you suspect ingestion of a lily.
There are many other hazards to pets this time of year. Just a couple of other things to think about: Chocolate, raw bread doughs, raisins, macadamia nuts, homemade salt dough ornaments, xylitol (an artificial sweetener), alcohol and other holiday cheer can be toxic and you should seek medical advice/attention immediately if your pet consumes any of these. Packages with ribbons and strings are very inviting to play with and can lead to abdominal obstruction, requiring surgery and an extra holiday bill you had not included in your budget. Electrical wires are found in abundance as we light our homes but make sure your new puppy or kitten is well protected from trying to play with or chew on them.
So have fun, enjoy the beauty of the season and be smart.