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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

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Now that Halloween and Thanksgiving are fading memories (but for those awesome pet photos you posted on Facebook), society is thrust into the cluster of holiday festivities that close out the calendar year.

Halloween celebrates candy and costumes (see Dr. Patrick’s Top Holistic Halloween Pet Safety Tips), while Thanksgiving emphasizes bountiful foods and home decor (see Wishbones, Candles, and Schedule Changes Pose Thanksgiving Pet Dangers).

Before we know it, Hanukkah, Christmas and other holidays will be upon us.  While decorating your dwellings with greenery or accepting floral gifts (or re-gifts), be aware of the potential for toxicity that festive plants can have for pets.

Here is my list of common winter holiday plants and the clinical signs our canine and feline companions can exhibit post-ingestion.

Amaryllis (Amaryllis sp.)

 

The Amaryllis is a favorite of mine, as only appropriate water and light are seemingly required to generate a spectacular flower. Unfortunately, the beauty of the Amaryllis is matched by its toxicity.

The Amaryllis contains Lycorine and other noxious substances, which cause salivation, gastrointestinal abnormalities (vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, and abdominal pain), lethargy, and tremors in both cats and dogs. The bulb of the plant is reputed to be more dangerous than the flowers and stalk.

The Amaryllis also goes by other names, including Belladonna, Saint Joseph Lily, Cape Belladonna, and Naked Lady.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii)

 

I have propagated my personal collection of Christmas Cactuses from larger plants hailing from Washington, Massachusetts, and Northern and Southern California. Of these four plants, only my Southern California variety produces flowers, which are white instead of the classic fuchsia.

Fortunately, if my canine companion Cardiff was to eat Christmas Cactus plant parts or flowers (or its relative, the Easter Cactus), he would suffer no direct toxic effects. The same lack of toxicity applies for cats. Yet, fibrous plant material causes mechanical irritation to the stomach and intestine, leading to vomiting or diarrhea.

Holly (Ilex opaca)

 

Your pet’s Christmas will not be so "holly-jolly" if Holly berries or leaves are consumed. Holly’s toxicity "stems from" (botanical humor) saponins, which are soap-like chemicals known as glycosides.  In dogs and cats, consumption of Holly causes gastrointestinal signs and lethargy.

House Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)

 

As a child, I loved the responsibility of adorning my family’s pine tree with well placed lights and commemorative decorations. I didn’t consider the possible toxic effects pine trees have on our companion animals until witnessing them first hand while working as an emergency veterinary technician.

There are a variety of pine trees that have the potential for causing toxicity, including the Australian, Norfolk, and Norfolk Island Pine. Beyond the gastrointestinal signs caused by pine needles' mechanical irritation, the toxic action is unknown (unlike the other plants on this list).

Additionally, the water used to nourish a pine tree can be quite noxious. Bacteria, molds, and fertilizers can cause your pet to become extremely sick with only a few laps.

American or European Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens)

 

Mistletoe, often used as an accessory to amorous advances, contains multiple substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats, including toxalbumin and pharatoxin viscumin (Lectins, Phoratoxins). Consumption of mistletoe berries or leaves can cause severe gastrointestinal, cardiovascular (low blood pressure, low heart rate), and neurologic (collapse, unusual behavior) signs.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

 

This plant is seemingly synonymous with Christmas and has an unnecessarily bad reputation for toxicity. As the Poinsettia has such holiday ubiquity, it is frequently ingested by our pets.

Fortunately, toxicology studies do not confirm the common perception of the poinsettia’s exceedingly harmful effects. It is still best that your pet does not eat any part of the plant, as the poinsettia contains a latex-like sap that causes oral irritation and vomiting.

Prevention and Treatment of Holiday Plant Ingestion

Ultimately, the best method for protecting your pet from inappropriate ingestion of a toxic plant is to keep your home free of holiday greenery. Alternatively, you can obstruct your pet’s access (especially in your absence) and use positive reinforcement (treats, toys, etc.) to promote avoidance.

If your pet shows signs of illness in the presence of a holiday plant, you should suspect the plant’s inappropriate ingestion as the cause. Contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) or Pet Poison Helpline (PPH) to determine the best treatment. Keep in mind that more than one toxic substance can be involved; therefore seeking an APCC or PPH consultation and pursuing treatment with a veterinarian are vitally important.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image credits - from top to bottom: 

Amaryllis / via ASPCA

Christmas Cactus by Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Red Berries (Holly) by Vaide Seskauskiene / via Shutterstock

Australian Pine / via ASPCA

Mistletoe by Martin Fowler / via Shutterstock

Poinsettia by Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image of the day: Michael Pettigrew / via Shutterstock

Comments  6

Leave Comment
  • LILIES
    12/06/2011 06:56am

    I don't remember lilies being available at Christmas time, but keep a constant vigil against them at the assisted living where I help a few seniors keep their cats. I've read in numerous articles online where even the juice from a broken Easter lily leaf, rubbed against by a cat, and licked from the fur, had resulted in death to an older feline. Is this true?
    Why on earth hasn't there been legislature REQUIRING that plant producers LABEL the toxicity level, and symptoms of ingestion by domestic animals on all plants or cut arranged bouquets? ( produced for indoor situations, seasonal, potted plants) They could make up for any lost revenue, by being able to boast more "pet safe" arrangements. I have never understood this. Easter grass, tinsel, and dental floss should have pet warnings as well in my opinion.
    Why are people who give these arrangements, not more careful to consider if the recipient has pets, and if the plant could be a danger to it? I know one means well, but a beloved pet should be seriously considered especially during the holidays.
    WORD TO GIFTERS: Many elderly people are very reluctant to throw out that ugly plant they are left with after all the beauty has faded from your gift. Why not spare them the agony, and give a single rose and a gift certificate to their favorite grocery store instead? Or better yet, a small basket of fruits or veggies you know they love?

  • 12/07/2011 06:02pm

    Thank you for your comments.
    I am sure the cats that live in the assisted living home appreciate your keen eye and awareness in keeping them safe form toxic plants.
    Great idea around having makers of plant/flower arrangement warn pet owners of concerns for toxicity. "Pet Safe" arrangements can be sold year round!
    Gifting a certificate or basket of fruit/vegetables as an alternative to a potentially toxic plant is another great idea.
    I hope to hear from you again. Feel free to correspond with my through my website (www.PatrickMahaney.com) or Twitter (@PatrickMahaney)

  • Flowers
    12/06/2011 07:25am

    When I lost my Darlene in April, a friend wired a dozen white roses with no greenery. She had a long chat with the florist, explaining that I have kitties and the bouquet must be non-toxic.

    I ended up having to pick up the gift because it was so far from my home. I asked the florist if anything was toxic. She shrugged and said I'd have to look it up myself. What she gave me was a planter that turned out to have several toxic plants and flowers.

    I was appalled by the apathy and non-education of the florist. My friend was furious that what she sent (and paid for!) wasn't what was delivered. I wish I had known she had ordered white roses so I could have refused to accept the planter.

    The plant had to go to my work place and eventually re-homed.

    I've also had this happen when I wired flowers to a funeral. I was very specific regarding the order. I guess the florist didn't think I'd fly to Indiana for the funeral because the flowers were nothing remotely like what was ordered.

    Even if the sender is careful, don't trust that what was ordered is what is delivered at the other end.

    I guess the moral of the story is: send something besides flowers or plants!

  • 12/07/2011 06:10pm

    Thank you for your interesting perspective and story.
    I am sorry to hear of your issues regarding appropriate plant/flower delivery.
    Although plants and flowers are pretty tokens of appreciation and commemoration, the toxic potential they have for our pets certainly merits consideration of an alternative.
    Having worked in emergency medicine and communicated with the ASPCA's Poison Control Center more times that I can recall (I know their existing case line number by heart 888-299-2973), I have personally seen the toxic effects of plant consumption in both cats and dogs.
    I appreciate your readership and comments.
    Please communicate with me in the future through my The Daily Vet blogs and via www.PatrickMahaney.com (or @PatrickMahaney on Twitter).
    Dr PM

  • Pine trees
    12/09/2011 10:27am

    As an FYI, the pine tree isn't toxic - it's the CONCENTRATED essential oil that is. I didn't want people to think that it's hyped as toxic, when really it's quite safe for people to have these Christmas trees in their house. Good point on the water in the Christmas tree holder though - the stagnant water can result in mild gastrointestinal signs; however, it's typically the OLDER chemical copper sulfate that was placed in the water that was an issue. This is rarely used nowadays.

    When in doubt, you can check www.petpoisonhelpline.com or call 800-213-6680 for information re: toxic plants and common dangers in the house.

    Dr. Justine Lee
    Associate Director of Pet Poison Helpline
    The Daily Vet
    @drjustinelee

  • 12/10/2011 11:49am

    Hi Dr Justine,
    Thank you for that clarification.
    My intent was certainly not to have pet loving people decide to not get a holiday tree (or garland or wreath) as a result of the potential toxins associated with pine.
    I have treated plenty of dogs who decided to snack on such decor and they have exhibited significant vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately, the signs were managed with supportive care and the owner's better foresight as to not let the dog have access to eat holiday decor.
    Thanks for providing the number for the Pet Poison Helpline so readers can all if their pet has a confirmed or suspected holiday toxicity.
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney
    Web www.PatrickMahaney.com

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