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5 holiday plants that are toxic to animals

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
5 holiday plants that are toxic to animals

The holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without festive plants and greenery. Whether it’s a Christmas tree in the living room or a poinsettia on your dining room table, their colors and scents add so much to the atmosphere of your home. But when you have dogs, you have to be careful. Many holiday plants, greens and berries can be poisonous. Here’s a look at which plants are toxic – and which ones are safe to have around.

1. Poinsettias

With their vivid green and red foliage, poinsettias are among the most well-known festive plants and are popular as gifts and decorations. But many dog guardians regard them as anathema, because common knowledge says they’re deadly poisonous to animals.

Fact is, they’re not as toxic as we’ve been led to believe. The idea that poinsettias are poisonous dates back almost a century, when an urban legend claimed a toddler died after eating a leaf from one of these plants. But according to Pet Poison Helpline and the ASPCA, these colorful plants, which are native to Mexico, aren’t that lethal.

Their sap does contain diterpenoid euphorbol esters and saponin-like detergents, chemicals that when ingested may cause vomiting, drooling or diarrhea. Skin reactions such as redness, swelling and itching may also occur. In other words, sampling a poinsettia might make your dog mildly ill, but it won’t kill him.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should give your dog carte blanche when it comes to poinsettias. After all, you don’t want him to get even mildly sick over the holidays, or at any other time. It’s always a good idea to keep the plants out of his reach, but don’t hit the panic button if he happens to munch a fallen leaf. Just keep an eye on him for any of the above signs. Naturally, if symptoms worsen or don’t resolve within 24 hours, take him to the vet as soon as possible, but chances are, this won’t happen.

2. Mistletoe

There’s some confusion surrounding mistletoe’s toxicity. Some sources say European mistletoe is more toxic than American mistletoe, and others say the opposite. A few even say that mistletoe is not as poisonous as we’ve been led to believe, and that mild digestive upset is the only risk if your dog consumes any. However, the ASPCA warns that mistletoe can also cause erratic behavior, a dangerously low heart rate and possibly even cardiovascular collapse. The glycoprotein lectins that mistletoe produces can cause cell death by hindering protein synthesis in the body.

Whatever you’ve heard about mistletoe, it’s best to err on the side of caution and keep it out of your dog’s reach. And that includes all parts of the plant – including the berries. This means checking the floor often for dropped fruit and cleaning it up immediately. If you don’t think you’ll have time to do this, nix mistletoe from your holiday decorating list, or use the artificial variety.

3. Amaryllis

These striking plants are a favorite with many indoor gardeners, especially this time of year. But don’t add them to your wish list unless you have a dog-free place to display them. These bulb-grown plants contain naturally-occurring chemicals such as lycorine that can be toxic to your pooch.

The bulb itself is the most poisonous, but other parts of the plant can also cause reactions if ingested in big enough quantities. Along with GI upset, amaryllis may cause drooling, depression and tremors. If you still can’t resist having an amaryllis, put it on a high shelf or other surface well away from questing noses and tongues.

4. Christmas cactus

Here’s one of the safer ones. The ASPCA lists Christmas cactus as non-toxic to dogs. Although some people have reported vomiting or diarrhea in their canines after ingesting parts of this plant, others have said their dogs showed no ill effects after eating both the flowers and the leaves. This doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to allow any nibbling or chewing, but the Christmas cactus is one of those plants you can be less worried about when it comes to your companion’s well-being.

5. Holly and Ivy

There are many different kinds of holly – from English and European holly to winterberry and American holly – but all have some degree of toxicity. Perhaps surprisingly, the berries are only mildly poisonous, but consumption of the whole plant can do damage to your dog’s digestive system. Part of this is due to the spiny points on the leaves, which can cause irritation to the stomach and intestines, but the plants also contain toxic saponins, methylxanthines and cyanogens that lead to serious GI upset.

Like holly, the ivy family has many different varieties, but they also contain toxins that can harm your dog – and given that ivies have a habit of climbing and drooping, you need to watch that the tendrils don’t dangle down into his reach. Be sure to pick up dropped leaves as well, even if they’re dead. Vomiting, diarrhea, GI pain and salivation are signs of ivy toxicity.

As long as you use some caution, your dog can co-exist with these holiday plants. Give preference to those that are less toxic, such as poinsettias and Christmas cactus, and either avoid the really poisonous ones, or keep them on a high surface or in a hanging plant holder. That way, you can have a safe dog as well as a beautiful home for the festive season!

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