Holiday Pet Poisons: Monsters and Myths

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: November 05, 2015
Published: December 02, 2010
Share this:

Last reviewed on November 5, 2015

Between The Miami Herald and USA Today, this topic seems to be my shtick for the week: Which holiday toxins make the grade, and which don’t quite pass the muster as poisons worth changing our habits over.

But first, the good news: Pet owners care more about what goes into and onto their pets than ever before. Dogs and cats are no longer left alone to maraud around the Christmas tree with visions of electric cords and tinsel ingestion in their heads. We know better ... right?

Well, mostly. But sometimes we get it backwards, as when we worry ourselves unduly over things like poinsettias, mistletoe, and Christmas tree water, when things as humble and ubiquitous as fruitcake and sugar-free holiday fare top the list of the deadliest holiday toxins.

By way of clarification, here’s this year’s list:

Poinsettias: According to the veterinarians at Pet Poison Helpline, poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are only "mildly toxic" to dogs and cats. Over the years, however, news of their extreme toxicity somehow gained legendary — if hyper-inflated — status.

Only mild irritation of the mouth, stomach, or skin is to be expected — and only if direct contact or ingestion of this substance occurs — which is rare. Indeed, I’ve never seen an example of this kind of poinsettia-related toxicosis.

Mistletoe: This "kissing" plant is also erroneously famed for its toxicity. Sure, it can cause irritation and indigestion similar to the poinsettia plant, but it doesn’t need to be expressly avoided (not that we get any of the real stuff around these parts).

Lilies (tiger, Asiatic, stargazer, day, and Easter varieties): These are highly toxic to cats. The petals, leaves, and pollen can cause kidney failure.

Christmas cactus and English holly: Serious GI upset can result in both dogs and cats. Though death is very unlikely, having them around probably isn’t worth the risk.

Fruitcake: Between the alcohol and the raisins, I’m not sure which is more toxic to dogs. Alcohol can cause a drop in blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Raisins can sometimes cause acute kidney failure. Either way, it’s a canine no-no.

Liquid potpourri: Popular around this time of the year for their cinnamon-y scents, these heated oil-based household enhancements can prove deadly to cats. Severe chemical burns in the mouth, fever, difficulty breathing, and tremors can result.

Sugar-free goods: And don’t forget the serious hazard posed by the sugar substitute xylitol. This all-natural sweetener may be great for helping diabetics control their blood sugar, yet gram for gram, they’re the most dog-toxic ingredient on our supermarket shelves.

As for chocolate, high-fat fare, electric cords, tinsel, and other ingestible goodies? Beware, of course. But go ahead and decorate away with the poinsettias. Think I'll even go get me a couple this weekend.

Not that I would recommend you feed them to your cat.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Plastic yum" by MaryAnnS