None of my patients got sick this year from eating Halloween chocolate or Thanksgiving turkey, but a worried friend called recently. She had come home to find that her cat, Yogi, had eaten part of a begonia. It was the end of a very long work day for me, full of very sick animals. My brain was dog-tired. Begonias? Were begonias poisonous? I asked myself. My brain snored and said nothing. I was drawing a complete blank. After 30 years in practice, if some common item is poisonous to pets, I have usually seen a case or two, or at least heard about it. On the other hand, I didn’t know about raisin and grape toxicity when it was first reported until a client showed me an article, so I try to stay humble about what I know and don’t know.
“Hang on,” I said. “I don’t think that’s a problem, but let me check.” A quick spot of research confirmed. Begonias can contain irritating oxalate crystals. When eaten, they may cause drooling, vomiting, and diarrhea, but are not likely life-threatening. Yogi was feeling fine, so I advised observation at home … and moving the begonias.
Today, begonias. Tomorrow, poinsettias, I thought. Let’s talk Christmas foliage.
Not poisonous. Repeat after me: Not poisonous. You don’t need to call me if your cat, Mrs. Claws, nibbles this traditional Christmas decoration. The legend that they are toxic is reputed to have started circa 1918, when a child’s death was mistakenly attributed to eating poinsettias. Specialists, however, estimate that a 50-pound child would need to eat 500 leaves to get significantly ill. The American Association of Poison Control Centers notes that in more than 20,000 cases of poinsettia exposure in children, 92 percent showed no clinical signs of poisoning.
Poinsettias are in the euphorbia family, and do contain milky sap full of latex irritants. Topical exposure can cause redness, irritation, and itching. (Interesting trivia — humans with latex allergies can get skin reactions from touching poinsettias.) Like begonias, if ingested, poinsettias may cause drooling, vomiting and diarrhea, but that’s it. If Mrs. Claws indulges, then starts barfing, simply withhold food and water until her stomach settles down. And move the poinsettia.
A little more confusing. European varieties are more toxic than American. Leaves and berries of both contain toxins that are similar to ricin found in castor beans. Luckily, with the type of mistletoe usually found in the U.S., the effect of ingesting small amounts is often limited to gastrointestinal upset. This is especially true because with store-bought mistletoe, the real berries have often been removed and replaced with plastic imitations. On the other hand, if you bought a dozen bunches, and Santa the Samoyed ate all 12, this is dangerous. Although rare, consuming large amounts of mistletoe can be fatal. Call your veterinarian right away.
It eludes me why a pet would eat those spiky holly leaves, but sometimes they do. Then, big surprise, their mouths get irritated. Symptoms may include head shaking, lip smacking, and drooling. Holly also contains a number of potentially toxic substances, but few pets actually swallow a significant quantity of thorny leaves. If Santa snacked on holly, rinse his mouth with water, then feed him something bulky like bread, which may help protect his gut from irritation. If he has protracted vomiting, call your veterinarian, but minor exposures can usually be treated at home.
Christmas trees, wreaths, and all things evergreen
Generally not toxic, but they contain essential oils. These give your house that wonderful pine aroma, but, if ingested, can cause vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, and depression. Sharp pine needles can cause mechanical irritation and trauma. If Mrs. Claws eats a large quantity, they could theoretically cause intestinal obstruction, or even perforation, but this is rare. The major risks from old Tannenbaum are the accoutrements. Eating tinsel can be deadly, particularly to cats, who are prone to “linear foreign body” intestinal obstructions, which require surgery. Some pets, especially puppies and rabbits, will chew electrical cords, causing oral burns, electrocution, even death. Then there’s the preservative in your tree water. Most just contain sugar and fairly benign fertilizer that cause minor upset tummy if ingested, but check the ingredients. If you don’t change the water often, bacterial or fungal growth can occur that also may make pets sick.
This is a new one to me. Only recently associated with Christmas, it is cardiotoxic, i.e., it affects the heart. Dogs may be particularly sensitive. Dwarf varieties generally only cause gastrointestinal signs, but because of the risk of more serious results, you should call your veterinarian if your pet eats this one. More trivia — cane toads and fireflies contain the same toxin as kalanchoe. We don’t have cane toads here, but in other regions, toad toxicity is a real problem for pets. Fireflies? Well, you’d have to eat an awful lot of them to get sick.
Traditionally for Easter, sometimes they show up in Christmas bouquets. Certain varieties can cause lethal kidney failure in cats if ingested. It doesn’t take much. Call your veterinarian immediately if your cat eats any part of a lily, no matter how small, even pollen. Don’t wait for morning or to see if she gets sick. By then it will be too late. Peace lilies, calla lilies, amaryllis lily, lily-of-the-valley, are not “true” lilies and won’t cause kidney failure, but may contain other toxins. These may range from irritating oxalates, giving rise to intense burning and irritation of lips, mouth, and throat, to substances that affect the heart, leading to incoordination, vomiting, cardiac arrhythmias, even death. In some plants, like amaryllis, toxins concentrate in the bulbs, so if you’re forcing flowers this winter, be sure to keep bulbs out of reach.
So as you decorate for the holidays, whatever you celebrate, keep the chocolate Santas and Hannukah gelt stashed away. Pet-proof your solstice tree. Be vigilant about potentially toxic items on the house. But don’t call me about poinsettias.