Much of the color and joy provided by decorating the interior of the home for the holidays involves bringing live plants and plant materials into the home.
From the vivid and varied colors of amaryllis and Christmas cactus to the strikingly monochromatic backdrop provided by holly and evergreen boughs or roping, plants and plant material are an integral part of the holiday festivities for many central Ohio households.
But the same plants, which bring plant lovers joy and holiday color, can also be dangerous when ingested by pets who wish to join in the festivities of the season. Because Fido and Fluffy — Buckeye and Gracie in our home — sometimes just can’t resist investigating and even taste-testing these new additions to their play space (also known as your living room), holiday plant lovers with pets must be cautious when bringing holiday plants into home spaces shared with beloved pets.
Whether you are giving or receiving plants for the season — or merely have some of these plants already in the house for decoration — here’s a rundown of the potential toxicity of some of our most cherished holiday plants.
• Christmas cactus: The indoor Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) provides a festive pop of color for the holidays and beyond. Although not terribly toxic if ingested by pets, in cats, mild cases of ataxia (abnormal uncoordinated movements) and mild stomach upset have been reported.
• Holly: The quintessential Christmas decoration, holly (Ilex opaca) — also known as English holly, European holly, winterberry, or American holly — might not be the best choice for homes with pets, especially curious cats. Certain types of holly contain toxic saponins and the prickly leaves can cause discomfort to pets who decide to chomp on them. Signs of holly ingestion in cats and dogs include lip-smacking, drooling, head shaking, vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. Ingesting holly typically is not fatal to dogs and cats but can cause extreme discomfort.
• Live Christmas trees: Ingesting a small amount needles from pines, firs and spruce trees typically will not cause major discomfort to dogs and cats unless the tree was treated with a flame retardant. Ingestion of large amounts of needles, which are sharper and less pliable, such as those of Colorado blue spruce, could cause puncturing of the digestive tract.
• Mistletoe: Hanging mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens) is a fun tradition in many households but one that should be avoided in pet-loving households. Several species of mistletoe are toxic to dogs and cats, causing gastrointestinal upset and even seizures and death when large quantities are consumed. Pet lovers should opt for plastic or silk mistletoe as the backdrop for their holiday smooches.
• Poinsettia: The stunning poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), now available in an array of different colors and leaf characteristics, is probably the most misunderstood holiday plant when it comes to potential toxicity. Although ingesting the leaves or stems of poinsettia can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, it does not cause severe illness or death — contrary to what Grandma might have told you.
• Amaryllis, paper whites, daffodils: These bulbs, forced for holiday blooming, make a stunning addition to any holiday setting and are popular gifts for plant lovers, but they are very toxic to both pets and humans. Ingesting the leaves or bulbs can cause abdominal pain, convulsions and cardiac arrhythmias. The leaves are considerably less toxic than the bulbs.
• Cyclamen: Available in a palette ranging from deep red to soothing white, cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum) add instant bling to any holiday setting, but the plant contains dangerous saponins, which can cause intestinal symptoms. The tuber or root of cyclamen is most toxic.
With attention to proper selection and some strategic placement, plant lovers who live with pets can enjoy the colors, textures and fragrance from many different plants and plant materials throughout the holiday season.
Pet owners who suspect pet illness from ingesting holiday plants should contact their veterinarian or consult the 24-hour emergency pet poison hotline maintained by the ASPCA at 1-888-426-4435.
Mike Hogan is an associate professor at Ohio State University and extension educator at the OSU Extension.