Reviewed and updated for accuracy on November 12, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
During the holidays, plants play a prominent role in festive decorations.
However, 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 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.
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 won’t 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.
That being said, it is still best to keep poinsettias out of reach of pets.
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). It’s well-known for causing severe intestinal upset as well as a sudden and severe drop in blood pressure, breathing problems and even hallucinations (showing up as 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 better yet, kept out of the home altogether.
Lilies and Daffodils
Both popular gift items at this time of year, 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. The bulbs are the most toxic; however, even a few bites of the flower can cause kidney failure and even death in cats.
Any lilies and daffodils you buy or receive as gifts might be better used for decorating your desk at work to keep your pet safe (unless there are pets in the office).
The beauty of the flowering Amaryllis is only 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.
Amaryllis, by any name, should be kept out of the house.
Fortunately, the Christmas Cactus (or its relative, the Easter Cactus) plant is not toxic to dogs in either its parts or flowers. The same applies for cats. However, fibrous plant material can cause irritation to the stomach and intestine, leading to vomiting or diarrhea.
Curious cats and dogs, especially kittens and puppies, may be injured by the spines, so these plants should still be kept out of pets’ reach.
The Christmas Tree
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 punctures.
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 of water. Keep the water covered and blocked off to prevent pets from accessing it.
Curious cats may climb the tree and/or knock the tree over, injuring themselves and damaging heirloom ornaments. Best practice is to keep your Christmas tree blocked off and out of reach of your cats.
Playing It Safe
If you do choose to bring any of these plants into your home, 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 artificial 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.
The phone number for the ASPCA Poison Control is 1-888-426-4435, 24 hours a day.
The holiday season brings potential dangers for our pets, but with a little effort, you can keep them safe.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Ron and Patty Thomas