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Protecting Your Family and Pets from Plant Toxins During the Holidays

Polly Dornette
Product Developer


November 2015

Plants and plant materials make our houses look festive and cheerful during the winter months, especially during the holiday season. Yet household plants are among the toxins frequently ingested by children and pets. Being aware of which plants and plant-based substances are toxic and keeping them in a safe location can help you keep your family safe.


Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

When you read this article’s title, you might have assumed poinsettias would be mentioned. However, the reputation of this plant’s toxicity is the result of an urban legend from the early 1900s. While often listed as highly toxic, poinsettias are only mildly toxic, typically causing nothing more than an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. This plant is indigenous to Mexico and Central America.


Mistletoe

Mistletoe is the common name used for over 1,000 different plants. The two most common species of mistletoe used for holiday decorations (Viscum album and Phoradendron flavescens) contain the toxins viscotoxin and phoratoxin. Both of these toxins are hemolytic peptide-based toxins that can depolarize cell membranes in skeletal and cardiac muscles. Symptoms of mistletoe ingestion include blurred vision, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and death in humans. Mistletoe is also toxic to dogs and cats. Symptoms of ingestion in pets include vomiting, diarrhea, erratic behavior, and difficulty breathing.


Chocolate/cacao (Theobroma cacao)

Eating chocolate may contribute to some of the unwanted holiday pounds for humans, but can be deadly for a pet, specifically dogs. Factors such as the type of chocolate, the amount the dog consumed, and the dog’s size determine how sick your pet may become after eating chocolate. The toxicity of chocolate comes from theobromine, which dogs process at a much slower rate than humans. Different types of chocolate have different levels of theobromine; cocoa and dark chocolate are the most harmful. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, chocolate tops the list of dog toxins. Too much chocolate consumption can cause vomiting, diarrhea, high heart rate, and seizures in pets.


Macadamia nut (Macadamia integrifolia)

If you like to leave dishes of nuts around during the holidays for your guests to snack on, be sure to keep the macadamia nut well out of a dog’s reach. Macadamia nuts are toxic to dogs, causing depression, weakness of the limbs, vomiting, and tremors, but are not typically lethal. The mechanism of toxicity is unknown.


Xylitol

Xylitol is a naturally occurring substance found in a wide variety of sources such as berries, plums, oats, and mushrooms. Often found as a sweetener in candies, medications, and breath mints labeled sugar-free, xylitol is highly toxic to pets. In dogs, xylitol stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreas. This rapid release of insulin causes a dramatic drop in blood sugar levels that can be life threatening, potentially causing seizures and liver failure.


Grapes/raisins (Vitis sp.)

Keep the fruit cake away from your dogs as well as all varieties of grapes and raisins, which have been shown to cause kidney toxicity in canines. Vomiting is typically the first symptom of grape or raisin toxicity and can be followed by diarrhea, excessive thirst, excessive urination, or lethargy. Kidney failure typically presents 1 to 3 days after consumption, and symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, abdominal pain, and tremors or seizures. The specific compound responsible for the toxicity in dogs is currently unknown.


Rhododendrons and azaleas (Rhododendron sp. and Azaleastrum sp.)

Members of the Azaleastrum subgenus are small and deciduous, but the remainders of the rhododendron genus are large, woody shrubs. Some will bloom in the winter, while others maintain green leaves year round. All parts of these plants are considered toxic. The grayanotoxins found in rhododendrons can disrupt sodium channels, thereby affecting skeletal and cardiac muscle. Clinical signs of rhododendron poisoning include drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, abnormal heart rate, heart arrhythmias, weakness, hypotension, depression, tremors, blindness, seizures, and coma. Rhododendron is extremely toxic to horses and can lead to death within a few hours of ingestion. Dogs are also very susceptible to the toxicity. Humans have been known to become ill after ingesting honey made by bees from the pollen of rhododendron or inhaling smoke from burning rhododendron in a fireplace.


Tulips and hyacinths (Lillaceae family)

While you aren’t likely to see grand holiday tulip displays, the toxicity for these plants lies in the bulbs, which may be in your house waiting to be planted. Tulip bulbs can cause stomach problems, convulsions, and increased heart rate. These plants contain allergenic lactones and other alkaloids, which are concentrated in the bulbs. Ingestion by dogs typically occurs when a dog chews up a bag of bulbs ready to be planted or digs up freshly planted bulbs. Tissue irritation of the mouth and esophagus is common with ingestion. Other symptoms include profuse drooling, vomiting, or even diarrhea. Large ingestions can lead to more severe symptoms such as increased heart rate or difficulty breathing.

Take a look around your home to make sure the plants and substances listed above are out of the reach of children and pets. Keep in mind the toxicity of these items when discarding them. Secure your trash to keep children and pets from gaining access to these potential hazards.

 

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