Holiday Pet Poisoning Myths Debunked!

Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT
Associate Director of Veterinary Services, Pet Poison Helpline®

Myth #1 – Poinsettias are highly toxic to dogs and cats.

Although they have a bad reputation, the relative toxicity of poinsettia plants (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has been quite exaggerated.

Toxic principle: The most problematic component of the plant are the irritants found in is its milky white sap.

Symptoms: As the plant is chewed and the sap ingested, mild and self-limiting oral irritation, salivation, vomiting and diarrhea may result. Contact of sap with the skin may also result in mild dermal irritation, redness and itchiness.

Treatment: The majority of cases can be managed at home. Induction of emesis should be considered in the case of massive ingestions. Occasionally, supportive care such as anti-emetics, gastroprotectants and rehydration may be necessary. In cases of skin contact, simply bathing the animal with soap and water is sufficient to remove the sap.

Prognosis: Excellent provided severe vomiting and diarrhea do not result in dehydration.

MistletoeMyth #2 – Mistletoe is highly toxic to dogs and cats.

American mistletoe (Phoradendron spp.), the iconic holiday plant under which ‘couples like to stop’, also has an exaggerated degree of toxicity. Rumors of its toxic nature are largely due to confusion with its cousin, European mistletoe (Viscum spp.)

Toxic principle: The toxic agents of most significance are glycoprotein lectins which may inhibit protein synthesis and result in cell death.

Symptoms: Ingestion of American mistletoe leaves or berries may cause lethargy, vomiting and, less frequently, diarrhea. In rare cases hypotension (low blood pressure) may occur.

Treatment: Most ingestions can be managed at home. In some cases, general supportive care such as anti-emetics, gastroprotectants and rehydration may be necessary. Should clinical signs such as hypotension occur, monitoring of blood pressure and heart rate are warranted.  

Prognosis: Excellent in the majority of ingestions.

Myth #3 – Fruit cake is a healthy holiday treat.

While fruit cake may be a desirable food for people, it can actually be deadly to pets.

Toxic principle: Grapes, raisins and currants are common ingredients in fruit cakes and can result in kidney failure in dogs if ingested. Additionally, fruitcake that has been soaked in rum or other alcohol may lead to ethanol intoxication.

Symptoms: The ingestion of grapes, raisins and currants may lead to acute vomiting followed by increased thirst, increased urination, lethargy and a decreased appetite as kidney failure progresses. Alcohol ingestion may lead to a rapid and dangerous drop in blood sugar, blood pressure and body temperature. Animals ingesting alcohol can experience seizures and respiratory failure.

Treatment: Following the ingestion of grapes, raisins and currants, the immediate induction of vomiting is often advised. This may be followed by activated charcoal, aggressive IV fluid administration (to protect the kidneys) and frequent monitoring of kidney laboratory values.

For animals ingesting alcohol, the induction of vomiting may be contraindicated if the animal has neurological depression or has had spontaneous vomiting. The administration of activated charcoal is not recommended. Instead, IV fluids, warming measures and frequent monitoring of glucose and other laboratory values may be necessary.

Prognosis: For animals ingesting either grapes/raisins/currants or alcohol, the prognosis is excellent if animals are treated before signs begin. Once they have begun to develop kidney failure from grapes, raisins or currents, or have developed significant neurological depression and low blood sugar from alcohol, the prognosis becomes much worse.

TinselMyth #4 – Tinsel and ribbons are pet-friendly decorations.

Long, thin pieces of tinsel or ribbon may make beautiful decorations but could prove deadly if ingested. Cats and small dogs are at the highest risk for developing severe health problems following tinsel ingestion.

Toxic principle: While tinsel is not poisonous, ingestion can result in a linear foreign body. This occurs when something “stringy” wraps around the base of the tongue or anchors itself in the stomach, rendering it unable to pass through the intestines. As the intestines contract and move, the string can slowly saw through the tissue, resulting in severe damage (with possible puncture) to the intestinal tract, peritonitis (infection of the abdominal cavity) and death.

Treatment: Removal of the tinsel or ribbon via abdominal surgery followed by hospitalization, pain management, IV fluids, prescription diets, antibiotics and frequent monitoring of laboratory values.

Prognosis: Good if the animal is treated before severe signs and intestinal damage result. If the intestine is perforated the prognosis becomes much worse.