Holiday flowers pose limited threats for pets


My daughter’s eighth-grade class has been fundraising for their upcoming trip to Italy. They’ve peddled Yankee candles, baked Thanksgiving pies, sold raffle tickets, washed cars — all to earn money for art museums and gelato.

This week they’ve been selling poinsettias for Christmas. Being a helpful mom, I have a picture of one of these showy red and green lovelies in my waiting room with a sign-up sheet for potential buyers, many of whom immediately comment on the perils of having such a poisonous plant around their pets. So here we go. The obligatory Holiday Poisonous Plant column.

Poinsettias. Not poisonous. Really. It’s true that if your cat, Yule, nibbles a few fronds, he may not feel well. He may vomit, lose his appetite, have diarrhea, but he is unlikely to get seriously sick. The tale of the poisonous poinsettia apparently began back in 1918 when the death of a child in Hawaii was mistakenly attributed to poinsettia ingestion. The misconception that this traditional Christmas decoration is toxic has persisted ever since, but specialists estimate that a 50-pound child would need to eat more than a pound of poinsettia, that’s five to six hundred leaves, to get significantly ill.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers also notes that in more than 20,000 cases of poinsettia exposure in children, 92 percent showed no clinical signs of poisoning. If Yule is yukking up poinsettia, move the plant out of reach, then simply withhold food and water until his stomach settles down.

Holly and mistletoe may pose greater risks. Mistletoe comes in European and American varieties, both of which contain numerous potentially toxic substances in the leaves and berries. The effect of ingesting small amounts of mistletoe usually is limited to gastrointestinal upset, but consuming larger amounts can be dangerous, requiring decontamination and cardiovascular monitoring. The human medical literature suggests that serious toxicity in people is rarely a problem (although there was one reported case of a person dying after drinking home-brewed mistletoe tea in an attempt to terminate a pregnancy.) With store-bought mistletoe, the real berries have often been removed and replaced with plastic imitations. (Yule probably shouldn’t eat those either.)

Holly leaves and berries also contain many potentially toxic or irritating substances that can cause gastrointestinal upset or occasionally more severe symptoms. It is more irritating to mucous membranes than mistletoe, and exposed pets may salivate, smack their lips, or shake their heads. To be on the safe side, if you have pets or small children, I suggest you eschew the holly and mistletoe. That’s eschew — not chew.

If Yule does chew them, check with your veterinarian and Animal Poison Control (888-426-4435.) Yule will likely be fine, but depending on the particular circumstances, toxicologists may recommend inducing vomiting, dosing with activated charcoal, restricting food and water, maintaining hydration with intravenous or subcutaneous fluids, medical monitoring, and/or other specific treatments.

What about the Christmas tree, holiday wreath, and evergreen garlands draped on the mantle? Most evergreens are not toxic, but ingestion of needles or sap can be irritating and cause vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, and depression. If Yule eats enough needles, they could theoretically cause an obstruction, or even intestinal perforation, but this is rare. If Yule gets sticky tree sap on his fur, help him out by using something oily like olive oil or mayonnaise to remove it. This is more effective than shampoo and will safely lessen the amount of sap he ingests while grooming. What about the Christmas tree water? It usually just contains sugar and fairly benign fertilizer so don’t worry if Yule takes a few laps.

Now the truly naughty plants. Lilies. Although traditionally for Easter, they often show up in Christmas bouquets. Those dramatic blossoms and protuberant stamens are tempting to felines. Unfortunately, depending on the exact variety, virtually every part of the lily, right down to the pollen, can cause lethal kidney failure in cats. And it doesn’t take much. Eating one or two leaves can be fatal.

Call your veterinarian immediately. Don’t wait for morning. Don’t wait to see if Yule gets sick. By then it will be too late. If Yule ate the lily very recently, your veterinarian may opt to induce vomiting, but in any case, intravenous fluid therapy should be started immediately to try to prevent kidney failure from occurring. Rapid action can mean the difference between life and death. Exactly which lilies are dangerous? There are so many varieties and hybrids, and most people cannot tell one from the other. To be on the safe side, unless you’re a botanist, if it’s a lily, assume it is deadly to your cat.

Some plants have the word “lily” in their common name but are not true lilies — peace lilies, calla lilies, amaryllis lilies, lily-of-the-valley, to name a few. None of these lead to kidney failure like true lilies but some contain irritating oxalates that give rise to intense burning and irritation of the lips, mouth, and throat resulting in excessive drooling and difficulty swallowing. Others contain substances that can affect the heart.

The bulb of the amaryllis “lily” may be particularly hazardous. Whereas consumption of small amounts of leaves or flowers causes drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea, if Yule eats the bulb itself, he may experience hypotension, weakness, incoordination, tremors and seizures. Luckily, cats rarely seem interested in dining on flower bulbs, but keep them out of reach anyway.

Here’s a fun fact. The most frequent call received by both human and animal Poison Control is about those ubiquitous silica gel packets found tucked into all kinds of merchandise to absorb moisture and keep the things they accompany nice and dry. They come with everything from toys to computers to boots to food. It says right on them “Do Not Eat,” but Yule can’t read.

Happily, this stuff isn’t toxic. If Yule were to swallow a packet whole, it might cause a gastrointestinal obstruction, but otherwise it’s no more dangerous than, say, poinsettias, which are not poisonous. Really.