Every holiday season, I get many phone calls from very worried people who found Snuffles or Chubs chewing on some Christmas greenery.
Most of these ingestions don’t result in much more than a bedraggled-looking Christmas plant, but you should be aware of potential toxicities.
First thing to do to avoid a potential poisoning? Make all attempts to keep the plants out of reach of pets from the get-go.
Cats may be more at risk than dogs because many of these plants are on surfaces where cats can jump but dogs can’t reach. Certain cats have a fetish for eating plants, so be even more vigilant.
Puppies, naturally, are more prone to chewing on plants, another good reason to avoid the pitfall of the “Christmas puppy gift” when so much is going on in your home.
Don’t put additives in the water in your tree stand. They can be dangerous if ingested, and the tree doesn’t need anything but fresh water. Try to keep all pets from drinking the tree water — a lot of tree residue can sit in old water and cause stomach upset.
Most Christmas plants are only toxic in that they cause GI upset if ingested. Here is a list of the most common plants and their dangers.
It’s possible these beautiful flowers grown from bulbs are even more popular than the classic Christmas plant, the poinsettia. If your receive an amaryllis as a present, it will most likely be a bulb in a box, and your pet may not be tempted nor be able to open the box to get to the bulb.
But if you have been growing amaryllis bulbs for a few months to have them flower at Christmas or receive a flowering amaryllis plant, the danger to your pet is more real.
Alkaloids in the bulb and the leaves can cause vomiting if ingested. Most pets chew on the leaves, which cause mild gastrointestinal upset such as vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite or hyper-salivation.
Symptoms can be more extreme if your pet ingests part of the bulb, including restlessness, tremors or trouble breathing. These severe cases should be brought to an emergency veterinarian. Mild GI signs are seen most often, and these usually resolve on their own in a few hours.
Many folks panic about poinsettia ingestion, but this plant is not that dangerous. The hysteria stems from a wrongful 1919 report of a 2-year-old child in Hawaii dying after eating poinsettia leaves. The child died of other causes. The urban myth lives on.
Although a pet chewing on a poinsettia may create mild vomiting and/or diarrhea signs, the more common toxicity is caused by the sap in the leaves. The pet’s skin can become red and itchy if in contact with the sap. Ingestion can irritate the mouth and cause excessive salivation. Eyes may become irritated if the pet gets the sap in them.
Bathe your pet with mild soap and flush eyes with saline or water. Milk can be given to coat the GI tract and mouth. The vast majority of these exposures are self-limiting.
3. Christmas Cactus
Once again, GI signs are the most common symptom if your pet chews on the beautiful blooming Christmas cactus.
If a lot of the plant is ingested, there may be bloody vomiting and diarrhea. Cats can become mildly neurologic and stagger (ataxia). Most pets are better in a few hours.
This is a beautiful little houseplant that has become very popular at Christmas.
Kalanchoes are cardiotoxic plants (dangerous to the heart) if ingested. Thankfully, the dwarf variety cultivated for houseplants are less toxic. Know that the flowers of these plants are the most toxic. Ingestion usually causes GI signs and, rarely, cardiovascular signs.
If your pet seems weak, disoriented, vocalizes in a strange way or acts extremely depressed, this requires emergency treatment. Again, eating a part of a dwarf potted Kalanchoe rarely produces severe symptoms.
Often found as decorations on wreaths or in winter arrangements, holly also grows outside as ornamental shrubs, and people may bring holly into the home for decoration. Ingestion can cause GI upset, but eating holly also poses a mechanical problem: The leaves are sharp and can cause irritation in the mouth and, if enough is ingested, can act as a foreign body in the GI tract.
Watch for signs of stomach upset, anorexia and abdominal pain. Feeding some bread may help to mix with the holly to pass.
Holly is not particularly pleasant to eat or tasty, so most pets don’t eat enough of it to cause a problem. The same goes for your Christmas tree. Eating needles and nibbling on branches can cause mechanical irritation and blockage.
Lilies are also a big no-no when you have pets in the house:
Little rosemary trees with a ribbon on top make a lovely gift and can be attractive to your pet. But rosemary contains essential oils that can be dangerous to pets. In small quantities, there is no problem; eating a lot causes irritation to the GI tract. Large amounts can cause kidney damage and low blood pressure.
If you know your pet ate a lot of rosemary and has severe vomiting or diarrhea, you should go to the emergency hospital because damage to the kidneys may occur.
A Little Chewing Is Not That Dangerous
There’s lots for pets to get into if you have a busy holiday house. If your pet shows acute signs of vomiting or diarrhea, inspect your plants. If you find newly chewed leaves, there’s a decent chance the plant ingestion may have caused your pet’s GI symptoms.
Based on the damage done to the plant — which is usually minimal — you may be able to take a deep breath and know this is not that serious. Most plant ingestions cause mild upset stomach or diarrhea, and most pets are better in a few hours. If your pet is getting worse or if the GI signs are coupled with extreme lethargy, call your vet.
Happy and safe holly-days to you all.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Dec. 20, 2017.