Visiting Veterinarian - Poinsettias yes, lilies no

By Michelle Gerhard Jasny V.M.D. - December 20, 2007

Deck the halls, but skip the holly
Bowowowowowowow . . . me-ow
If you have a cat or collie
Bowowowowowowow . . . me-ow
Dogs and cats eat berries falling
Bowowowowowowow . . . me-ow
Soon your vet you may be calling
Bowowowowowowow . . . me-ow.

Okay everyone, here's the lowdown on Christmas trees and seasonal plants. Let's start with poinsettias. Not poisonous. Read it again. Not poisonous. I know you have heard otherwise. It's a Yuletide myth. Apparently back in 1918 a child's death in Hawaii was mistakenly attributed to poinsettia ingestion, starting a misconception that has persisted for almost a century. Specialists estimate that a 50-pound child would need to eat more than a pound of poinsettia leaves to get seriously ill. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that in more than 20,000 cases of poinsettia exposure in children, 92 percent showed no clinical signs of poisoning. Now I'm not suggesting you serve 'em up in a festive salad. They can cause gastrointestinal irritation, including vomiting and diarrhea, but if your pooch Poindexter picks at the poinsettias, there's no need to panic. The same is true if he chews on the Christmas cactus. Just withhold food and water for a few hours until his tummy settles down.

Christmas Rose, on the other hand, can cause vomiting, bloody diarrhea, seizures and delirium. If you don't know the difference between Christmas Rose and Christmas Cactus, stick with the poinsettias.

What about mistletoe? This plant is potentially more dangerous than any of those previously mentioned. It may contain a number of toxic substances in both the leaves and berries. The severity of the risk varies, depending on the exact type of mistletoe. Accidental ingestions by dogs of the most common "American Mistletoe" usually cause depression and vomiting, but they respond well to symptomatic treatment. However, if you get a more toxic variety, in certain cases ingestion of as little as one or two berries can be perilous, leading to cardiovascular problems, low blood pressure, collapse, seizures, liver failure, and, rarely, death. Unless you're a botanist, I would skip the mistletoe if you have pets or toddlers.

What? You say without that bundle of berries gaily dangling in the doorway no one kisses you? Then wrap it safely in a little bag of netting so leaves and berries can't fall to the floor. Hang the bag securely, hang it up high, and discard it carefully after New Year's.

Holly, like mistletoe, contains toxic substances but signs related to ingestion tend to be self-limiting. Poindexter may drool excessively, lose his appetite, vomit, or have diarrhea, but he will usually recover with supportive care. To be on the safe side, if you see your pet ingest either holly or mistletoe, always consult your veterinarian immediately.

Lilies are one of the most lovely, and most lethal, of the plants that may decorate your holiday table. Although these are usually thought of as a spring flower, just this week I saw a beautiful lily arrangement at Cronig's. All parts of the lily plant are deadly to cats, with the potential to cause kidney failure. If your cat, Calla, eats even a single leaf, it can be fatal. The types of lilies to avoid include Easter, Japanese, tiger, stargazer, rubrum, and day lilies, all either in the Lilium or Hemerocallis species.

If your cat eats even a tiny bite of one, do not wait. Do not say "She seems fine. I'll call the vet if she starts looking sick." It can take a while before Calla shows signs, and, at first, the symptoms may be mild. Over the next few days, however, they may progress to include disorientation, incoordination, head pressing, and signs related to kidney failure.

If you wait until she looks sick, you have waited too long. Effective treatment of lily toxicity requires immediate, early intervention.

Certain flowers, such as peace lilies, calla lilies, amaryllis lily, and lily-of-the-valley aren't true lilies. That doesn't mean they're safe for snacking. Peace and calla lilies contain irritating oxalates that can cause an intense burning and irritation of the lips, mouth, and throat. If Poindexter pounces on these plants, he may exhibit excessive drooling and difficulty swallowing. Lily-of-the-valley contains substances that can affect the heart. Ingestion can lead to incoordination, vomiting, cardiac arrhythmias, and death. If you have pets, skip these plants. Skip the real lilies, too. Check with your veterinarian, your florist, and, if necessary, Animal Poison Control. Roses are nice.

Now for the main attraction. Old Tannenbaum. The tree itself is not toxic, although if Calla eats the needles, she may get an upset stomach. The biggest danger is all the stuff that goes along with the tree, like the water. Pets can't resist a nice, refreshing drink from that tray of stagnant punch at the base. Some people add aspirin to this water. It's supposed to make the tree last longer. I don't know if this is true. I do know that if Call, the cat, drinks enough of it, your tree will live longer than your cat.

Aspirin can be lethal to cats in relatively low doses. What about those commercial tree extenders? Most of these just contain fertilizer and sugar. In its fresh state, tree extender water may cause mild gastrointestinal upset if ingested, but if it sits around long enough, bacteria will grow, making a nasty, swampy soup that can cause a nasty case of vomiting and diarrhea. If you use extenders, try to prevent access by your pets, and change the water regularly.

How about that white flocking spray used to create the illusion of snow? If ingested while wet, it may cause vomiting. You also don't want anyone inhaling the stuff while you are spraying it, so put the pets in the bedroom while you're making snow. Once the stuff has dried, it's basically just plastic. If Calla or Poindexter eats it, it should pass on through, unless they consume enough to cause an obstruction. Apparently it isn't tasty enough to entice too many pets to indulge.

Cats may not eat the fake snow, but they love tinsel and ribbons and these can cause very serious intestinal obstructions if eaten. Cats also like to climb. Trees. It's a great idea to anchor the top of your tree to the ceiling if you can, just in case Tom mistakes that angel up top for a goldfinch requiring his predatory attention. I read of one devoted cat owner who suspended her tree, ornaments and all, upside down from the ceiling, safely out of reach of curious felines. If that's a little too avant garde for your family (and where do you put the presents?), an electric scat mat under the tree will discourage adventurous cats from climbing. You can hide it under a tree skirt. Just remember to unplug it before your kids come charging down on Xmas morning.

For those that celebrate it, Merry Christmas. For everyone, may your days be filled with healthy, furry friends. With poinsettias. With loving family and community. With a sense of purpose. With peace and joy. But no lilies.