Animals will often chew plants to get some roughage. For dogs this is because they are omnivores and actually enjoy plant foods. Plant roughage can be a good source of vitamins and can be helpful for passing food through the intestines. Cats are strictly carnivorous, but eating plants can benefit them by helping to bind hair in the stomach and carry it back out when they hack the hair out through their esophagus and mouth. However, animals also eat leaves for reasons we do not always understand. This is especially true for pets that are kept indoors most or all of the time, since they have not learned which plants taste bad and should be avoided, or they do not have enough access to plants and will chew on whatever is accessible.
There are some types of decorative plants that are toxic to dogs and cats. In some cases, only mild indigestion and discomfort will result, in other cases, the toxicity can lead to more severe health problems, and even fatalities. If you are planning to bring holiday foliage into your home this year this season, you will need to know which plants are safe, which should be kept out of your pet’s reach, and which should be avoided entirely.
Poinsettia Plant Basics
A lot of people have been led to believe that the poinsettia plant is deadly for pets and children, but this is actually an unlikely occurrence. The poinsettia plant’s brightly colored leaves contain a sap that is irritating to the tissues of the mouth and esophagus. If the leaves are ingested, they will often cause nausea and vomiting, but it would take a large amount of the plant’s material to cause poisoning, and most animals and children will not eat such a large enough amount because of the irritating taste and feel from the sap.
However, if the plant has been treated with a pesticide, your pet could be at risk of becoming ill from ingesting the pesticide. The size of your pet and the amount of ingested plant material will be the determining factors for the severity of the poisoning. Young animals -- puppies and kittens -- are at the highest risk. Severe reactions to the plant or to the pesticide it has been treated with include seizures, coma, and, in some cases, death.
Holly and Mistletoe
Holly and mistletoe are also popular holiday plants. These plants, along with their berries, have a greater toxicity level than the poinsettia. Symptoms of illness form ingesting these plants include intestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhea, excessive drooling, and abdominal pain.
Mistletoe contains multiple substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats, including toxalbumin and pharatoxin viscumin (Lectins, Phoratoxins). Mistletoe is well known for causing severe intestinal upset, as well as a sudden and severe drop in blood pressure, breathing problems, and even hallucinations (unusual behavior). If a large enough amount of these plants are ingested, seizures and death may follow. The leaves and berries of holly and mistletoe plants, even the dried plants, should be kept well out of your pet's reach, or kept out of the home altogether.
Lilies and Daffodils
Both popular gift items at this time of year, plants in the lily and daffodil can be toxic to pets. In cats, Lilium and Hemerocallis genera lilies are the most dangerous. Eating even a small amount of the plant will have a severe impact on a cat's system, causing severe symptoms such as gastrointestinal issues, arrhythmia, and convulsions. Daffodils are also toxic to both dogs and cats, especially the bulbs.
The beauty of the flowering 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 even more dangerous than the flowers and stalk.
The Amaryllis also goes by other names, including Belladonna, Saint Joseph Lily, Cape Belladonna, and Naked Lady.
Fortunately, the Christmas Cactus (or its relative, the Easter Cactus) plant is not toxic to dogs in either its parts or flowers. The same lack of toxicity applies for cats. However, fibrous plant material can cause irritation to the stomach and intestine, leading to vomiting or diarrhea.
The Christmas Tree
There are other dangers to consider with the good ol' Yule tree other than lights and ornaments. The oils produced by fir trees can be irritating to a pet's mouth and stomach, causing excessive vomiting or drooling. The tree needles, meanwhile, may cause gastrointestinal irritation, obstruction, and puncture.
Additionally, the water used to nourish Christmas trees can be noxious. Bacteria, molds, and fertilizers can cause your pet to become extremely sick with only a few laps.
Playing it Safe
If you do choose to bring any of these plants into your home or place them near an entryway where your pet can reach them, be very careful about where you are placing them. Cats especially need to be considered, since they can jump to high shelves. If your cat is a known plant chewer, you will probably be better off choosing imitation plants over the real things. But if your dog or cat does manage to ingest any part of these holiday plants, call your veterinarian or poison control immediately to find out what you should do to minimize the damage.
Related Video: What to Do if Your Dog Eats Chocolate
Image: E.J. Catter / via Flickr