The holidays are a joyous time to reconnect with loved ones and deck the halls. Fun times, however, can quickly turn to tragedy when pets are exposed to potentially poisonous items.

Certain holiday foods and items, as detailed below, can be toxic and sometimes even life-threatening to pets. I encourage veterinary professionals to keep this article accessible as a reference, as puzzling poisoning cases are likely to happen during the holidays.

Holiday Decor

  • Tinsel: Ribbon, string, yarn and tinsel pose a significant threat to our feline patients (and, less commonly, canines). If ingested, a dangerous linear foreign body can result when something stringy wraps around the base of the tongue or anchors itself in the stomach, rendering it unable to pass through the intestines. Due to normal peristalsis, it can slowly saw through the tissue, resulting in an intestinal perforation and potential sepsis. The anchored string should not be cut prior to surgery, as it can "unwind" the loops of intestine, making it harder to find the multiple perforations that may be present.
  • Liquid potpourri: The liquid in simmer pots typically contains cationic detergents and essential oils (even if they aren't listed on the product label) that can be harmful to cats. Following oral, dermal or ocular exposure, cationic detergents can result in serious chemical burns/ulcerations, tissue necrosis, severe inflammation/fever and dyspnea. Essential oils may result in tissue irritation, central nervous system depression, dermal hypersensitivity and, rarely, hepatotoxicity.

Holiday Plants

  • Poinsettia: They get a bad rap during the holidays, but the relative toxicity of poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has been exaggerated. Its most problematic components are the saponin-based irritants found in the milky white sap. As the sap is ingested, mild and self-limiting oral/dermal irritation, salivation, vomiting and diarrhea may result. The majority of cases can be managed by pet owners at home.
  • Mistletoe: The common name of "mistletoe" can be misleading as there are many varieties. The variety under which couples stop to kiss, is the American Christmas mistletoe (Phoradendron tomentosum). Like the poinsettia, this plant also gets a bad rap. Rumors of its toxic nature are largely attributed to its cousin, European mistletoe (Viscum spp.). Although ingestion of American mistletoe leaves, berries or extracts may cause mild stomach upset, serious or life-threatening poisoning is rare in small doses.
  • Holly: Prized for its evergreen color and bright red berries, the Christmas or English holly (Ilex aquifolium) joins its holiday brethren as another slightly overrated toxic plant. The spiny leaves can result in mechanical damage and, potentially, a foreign body obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract. The leaves and berries contain saponins — chemicals that have a detergent-like effect on tissue and result in gastrointestinal irritation. Most holly ingestions can be managed by pet owners at home.
  • Yew: Often used in holiday wreaths, the Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidate) has been dubbed "the tree of death." Yews contain potent cardiotoxins — taxine A and B — which antagonize (block) the calcium and sodium ion channels in the myocardium. This results in bradycardia, reduced contractility, nonspecific dysrhythmias, ventricular fibrillation, arteriole vasodilation, hypotension, severe gastroenteritis and death.

Holiday Foods

  • Alcohol (ethanol): While pets can certainly be poisoned by scavenging unattended holiday cocktails, some unusual sources of alcohol are raw yeast bread dough, rum- or brandy-soaked fruit cakes, and fermenting garbage/fruits. When raw yeast bread dough is ingested, the yeast ferments sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol, resulting in alcohol poisoning. Signs of alcohol intoxication include severe hypoglycemia, hypothermia, respiratory depression and hypotension. Additionally, ingested dough can expand in the warm, moist environment of the stomach, resulting in gastric dilatation and potentially a gastric-dilatation volvulus (GDV).
  • Chocolate and cocoa: The toxins of concern in chocolate are theobromine and caffeine. The amount of theobromine is dependent on the concentration of the chocolate. For example, milk chocolate contains only 44-60 mg/oz. of theobromine, while unsweetened baking chocolate contains 390-450 mg/oz. Poisoning can happen when theobromine dosages exceed 20 mg/kg (e.g., agitation, GI signs), with more severe clinical signs occurring over 40-60 mg/kg (e.g., cardiotoxicity: tachycardia, arrhythmias; neurotoxicity: tremors, seizures, etc.). Dual poisonings may result when certain chocolate-covered foods are ingested, such as espresso beans, macadamia nuts or raisins.

Keeping Pets Safe

One of the easiest ways to reduce holiday stress for your clients and staff is to educate them on the most common toxins. By doing this, you’ll be helping your clients better pet-proof their homes and prepare your staff to answer inquiries.