Poinsettias and Pets

Holiday Plant Often Mistaken as Deadly

Cat sits next to poinsettia plant

Poinsettias are commonly recognized as a "holiday" plant with their beautiful, crimson red leaves that scream Christmas cheer. But as a pet owner, you've admired them from a far, worried that your dog or cat may gnaw on the leaves and succumb to the plant's deadly poison.

Fear not: Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias really aren't toxic to your pets.

The History of Poinsettias

Poinsettias, also known as the Christmas flower, Christmas star, Mexican flameleaf and lobster plant, were first introduced in the United States during the 1820s.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. minister to Mexico (ambassadors were not appointed until 1896), brought a “Noche Buena” plant from Mexico to the United States in 1825. Poinsett, who was also a botanist, became the namesake for the “poinsettia” in the U.S., where the plant was eventually cultivated in the subtropical climate of southern California’s deserts.

The poinsettia’s association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico (“Noche Buena” means Christmas Eve in Spanish). Folklore of a young, poor girl who was inspired by an angel to gather roadside weeds as a gift for Jesus’ birthday celebration tells of how the weeds sprouted crimson blossoms when placed at the church altar.

Franciscan friars in Mexico began including poinsettias in their Christmas celebrations during the 17th century. The plant’s star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.

Since the 20th century, poinsettias have become popular Christmas decorations throughout North America. In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.

The truth is that poinsettias are mildly toxic to pets, if at all.

Are Poinsettias Toxic?

Poinsettia plant

The myth of the poinsettia’s severe toxicity began in 1919 when the two-year-old child of a U.S. Army officer was alleged to have died from consuming a poinsettia leaf. The rumor was false, but the urban legend took off and, to this day, continues to thrive.

Researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) have measured the effects of ingesting unusually high doses of all parts of the plant (including the leaves, stems and sap) and found the plant to be non-toxic. According to POISINDEX (R), the information resource used by the majority of U.S. poison control centers, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than 1.25 pounds of poinsettia bracts (500 to 600 leaves) to exceed the experimental doses that found no toxicity.

The truth is that poinsettias are mildly toxic to pets, if at all, according to the Pet Poison Helpline.

The plant produces a milky white sap that contains chemicals called diterpenoid euphorbol esters and saponin-like detergents. If consumed by your pet, mild signs of gastrointestinal upset including vomiting, drooling or, rarely, diarrhea may be seen. It’s possible that some pets may experience dermal irritation if the milky sap is exposed to their skin, including redness, swelling, and itchiness. Generally these symptoms are self limiting but if they persist a trip to the veterinarian may be necessary.

If you suspect your pet has eaten a poinsettia and is displaying concerning symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately. If your veterinarian is not available, the Pet Poison Helpline has a 24-hour consulting help line.

Beware of Toxic Holiday Plants

While the poinsettia may not be a poisonous plant, there are other “holiday” plants which are, including mistletoe, lilies, rosemary, holly and holly berries.

Red berry Mistletoe

It is wise to note that lilies are frequently used by florists in bouquets, so inspect any holiday floral arrangements brought into your home. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, just one or two bites from a lily can result in severe acute kidney failure in cats — even the pollen of the lily is considered highly toxic.

Ingestion of Christmas and English holly can result in severe gastrointestinal upset for dogs or cats thanks to the spiny leaves and the potentially toxic substances (including saponins, methylxanthines, and cyanogens). If ingested, most dogs and cats smack their lips, drool and shake their heads excessively due to the mechanical injury from the spiny leaves.

While most of us hang mistletoe high enough so it’s out of reach of our dogs and cats, it can also be toxic if ingested. Mild signs of gastrointestinal irritation are seen, although if ingested in large amounts, collapse, hypotension, ataxia (walking drunk), seizures and death have also been reported in dogs and cats.

While these other holiday plants may be deadly, you need not banish poinsettias from your home for fear of a fatal exposure. Keeping poinsettias out of the reach of your pets is still a good idea, but don’t let an urban myth prevent you from celebrating the Christmas holiday with a touch of floral style.


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