Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Before bringing a plant into your home, be sure it’s safe for your pets. Some plants are so toxic they should never be kept in homes where animals live (the most hazardous are sago palms and, for cats, lilies). But many plants pose little danger to animals and are good choices for households with pets.
If you need to find out if a plant is safe, the list of toxic and nontoxic plants on the ASPCA Animal Poison Control website is an excellent resource: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants.
You can search the list for specific plants, and you can also generate lists of plants that are toxic or not toxic for dogs, cats, or horses. Some toxic and nontoxic plants have very similar common names, so always check a plant’s scientific name.
“Toxic” is a relative term when it comes to plants. Plants listed as toxic might cause anything from mild mouth irritation to death. Even plants listed as nontoxic can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea if they’re eaten. Plants listed as nontoxic should not cause life-threatening illness in animals.
These are a few of the houseplants that are not toxic to dogs and cats, according to ASPCA Animal Poison Control. Scientific names are from the ASPCA and the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/).
African violet (Streptocarpus ionanthus)
American or baby rubber plant (Peperomia obtusifolia)
Always check the scientific names of plants called “rubber.” Baby rubber plants aren’t toxic to dogs and cats. Jade plants, sometimes called dwarf rubber or Chinese rubber plants (Crassula ovata), are toxic. Indian rubber plants (Ficus benjamina) are also toxic to dogs and cats.
Boston fern (Nephrolepis exalta)
Some ferns are safe and some aren’t. Boston fern isn’t toxic to dogs and cats, but asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus [Sprengeri group]) and some of the ferns that grow outdoors are. Fern palm is another name for sago palm (Cycas and Zamia species), one of the most dangerous plants to have anywhere near an animal.
Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera species)
Christmas cactus isn’t toxic, but pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) irritates the mouth and stomach and can cause vomiting.
Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
Gerbera daisies are safe for dogs and cats. Some other daisy-like plants are listed as toxic; these include seaside daisy (Erigeron speciosus), chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum species), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), and, not surprisingly, poison daisy/mayweed (Eclipta prostrata).
Hens and chicks (Sempervivum species)
The small succulent called hens and chicks isn’t toxic. Some other succulents, like jade plants (Crassula species), can be toxic to dogs and cats.
Majesty palm (Ravenea rivularis), parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
Always look up palm species to be sure they’re safe. Majesty, parlor, and several other types of palm are safe for dogs and cats, but sago palm (Cycas and Zamia species) can be deadly.
Phalaenopsis or moth orchid (Phalaenopsis species)
Spider or ribbon plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Zebra haworthia (Haworthiopsis species)
The zebra plant looks similar to aloe (Aloe vera) but is safer for dogs and cats. Aloe can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
Public domain photo of Phalaenopsis or moth orchids by Bob Burch on Flickr
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Human medications that are applied to the skin can be dangerous for pets. Even tiny amounts of some topical drug preparations are toxic to dogs and cats.
Animals are exposed to topical medications by chewing a product tube, licking the product from a person’s skin, licking their fur after being touched by someone with the product on their hands, or possibly by absorbing the medication through their own skin.
If you use any topical medications, be aware of the possible risk to animals. Keep all medications out of your pets’ reach. Wash the product off your hands or wear gloves while applying it, and keep pets from licking skin and bedding that the product has touched.
If you think your pet has been exposed to a toxin, contact your veterinarian or animal poison control:
Calcipotriene and calcitriol are forms of vitamin D used to treat psoriasis. Animals that swallow topical preparations can develop abnormally high calcium levels and potentially life-threatening kidney damage. Symptoms include loss of appetite, vomiting, and increased urine volume.
Topical corticosteroids like betamethasone, clobetasol, hydrocortisone, and triamcinolone are used to treat various skin conditions. In animals, exposure can lead to a wide range of symptoms including increased urine volume, increased thirst, vomiting, and skin changes.
Animals exposed to topical hormone products containing estradiol and other forms of estrogen can develop hair loss, anemia, or low levels of platelets and white blood cells.
Fluorouracil cream is used to treat certain skin cancers. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that 5 dogs have died after ingesting small amounts of fluorouracil; 1 of the dogs died after simply puncturing the tube with its teeth. Symptoms in cats and dogs include vomiting, loss of balance, and seizures.
The hair loss treatment minoxidil (Rogaine) can cause severe heart problems in animals exposed to small amounts. At least 8 cats have died after their owners used topical minoxidil. Other cats and dogs have become seriously ill.
Pain Relievers: Local Anesthetics
Local anesthetics like benzocaine, lidocaine, and tetracaine (ingredients ending in ‑caine) are often included in over-the-counter products to treat pain from sunburn, insect bites, and so forth. If swallowed, these drugs can cause seizures and abnormal heart rhythm.
Pain Relievers: Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs
Flurbiprofen and diclofenac are among the many nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to treat pain. Some veterinary NSAIDs are safe to use in dogs, but most human NSAIDs are dangerous for animals, especially cats. The FDA has warned that topical flurbiprofen can cause serious illness or death in pets that are exposed to the product on a person’s skin. Many over-the-counter topical pain relievers contain NSAIDs, so read product labels carefully.
Retinoids like adapalene and tretinoin are used to treat acne and skin disorders and are included in some wrinkle remedies. Exposure can lead to liver damage in animals.
Zinc oxide is a common ingredient in over-the-counter sunscreens, diaper rash creams, and other products. Animals can vomit and have diarrhea after swallowing zinc oxide.
1. Tater KC, Gwaltney-Brant S, Wismer T. Dermatological topical products used in the US population and their toxicity to dogs and cats. Vet Dermatol. 2019;30(6):474-e140. doi:10.1111/vde.12796
2. FDA advice on pet exposure to prescription topical (human) cancer treatment: fluorouracil. US Food and Drug Administration. November 2, 2020. Accessed October 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/fda-advice-pet-exposure-prescription-topical-human-cancer-treatment-fluorouracil
3. Tater KC, Gwaltney-Brant S, Wismer T. Topical minoxidil exposures and toxicoses in dogs and cats: 211 cases (2001-2019). J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2021;57(5):225-231. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-7154
4. FDA consumer advice on pet exposure to prescription topical pain medications containing flurbiprofen. US Food and Drug Administration. October 1, 2019. Accessed October 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/fda-consumer-advice-pet-exposure-prescription-topical-pain-medications-containing-flurbiprofen
5. Khan SA. Topical preparations (toxicity). Merck Veterinary Manual. August 2014. Accessed October 22, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/toxicities-from-human-drugs/topical-preparations-toxicity
Photo by Lina Angelov on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Chip, snack, and cereal bags pose a suffocation risk that pet owners might not know about until it’s too late. Dogs and cats have died after putting their heads in snack bags and other food containers.
Of the various types of food containers, plastic and Mylar-lined bags are the biggest suffocation hazards. When an animal with its head in a bag inhales, the bag tightens around the head, cutting off airflow. The animal might not be able to remove the bag on its own. Death can occur in just a few minutes.
Preventive Vet conducted an online survey about pet suffocation and received 1354 responses from 2014 through 2018. The responses from pet owners whose pets died or almost died of suffocation are summarized here.
Most common culprits:
Where pets got hold of the bags:
More than one-third of pet owners were home when their pet suffocated. Of the owners who were away from home, 18% were gone for less than 15 minutes.
Animals of all sizes are at risk. According to the survey responses, more than half of the dogs who suffocated were larger than 30 lb, and some were over 60 lb.
Simply being aware of the risk is a big part of keeping your pets safe. A lot of us have probably left chip and other food bags where our pets can reach them. Here are some steps you can take:
Pet suffocation awareness, Preventive Vet website: https://www.preventivevet.com/pet-suffocation
Prevent Pet Suffocation website: https://preventpetsuffocation.com/
Photo by Yulia Khlebnikova
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Over-the-counter (nonprescription) nasal sprays and eye drops can pose a serious risk to animals that ingest them. The problem ingredients—imidazoline decongestants, phenylephrine, and xylitol—are common in products to treat allergies, colds, flu, and red eyes.
If your pet chews a nasal spray or eye drop bottle, call your veterinarian or an animal poison control hotline immediately. This type of poisoning is a medical emergency. Even small amounts of ingested product can be dangerous.
Pet poison hotlines (consultation fees apply):
Decongestants in the imidazoline class are found in many nasal sprays and eye drops that reduce nasal congestion and eye redness. Some of the drugs in this group are oxymetazoline, naphazoline, tetrahydrozoline, tolazoline, and xylometazoline. A few of the many brands that contain imidazolines are Afrin, Clear Eyes, Mucinex, Opcon, Privine, Sinex, Visine, and Zicam.
Imidazolines affect the heart, circulation, digestive system, and nervous system. They decrease nasal congestion and eye redness by narrowing small blood vessels in the nose and eyes.
Symptoms of imidazoline poisoning appear as soon as 15 minutes after ingestion of a large amount or a few hours after ingestion of a small amount. The symptoms last from about 12 to 36 hours and include the following:
Animals with imidazoline poisoning need to be hospitalized for treatment and monitoring. Reversal agents for imidazolines are available.
Imidazolines and phenylephrine have similar effects on the body. Like imidazolines, phenylephrine acts as a decongestant by shrinking small blood vessels in the nose.
Phenylephrine is available in oral forms, nasal sprays, eye drops, and hemorrhoid creams. Two brands of nasal spray that contain phenylephrine are Little Remedies and Neo-Synephrine. Ingestion can cause vomiting, agitation, hyperactivity, and increased blood pressure.
Some nasal sprays, including some with labels reading “natural saline,” contain xylitol. One example is Xlear nasal spray. Xylitol is harmless in humans, but in dogs it causes a dangerous, rapid drop in blood sugar and can also cause liver damage. The best approach is to keep all remedies (prescription, nonprescription, and “natural”) out of reach of pets and never assume that a product that’s safe for children is also safe for animals.
1. Almgren C. Clear eyes, dry nose, no problem? Wrong! Intoxications due to eye drops and nasal sprays. Pet Poison Helpline webinar. November 14, 2017. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/webinar/november-2017-intoxications-due-eye-drops-nasal-sprays/
2. Khan SA. Decongestants (toxicity). Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated August 2014. Accessed March 21, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/toxicities-from-human-drugs/decongestants-toxicity
Photo by Diana Polekhina
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Some bugs carry dangerous diseases or have venomous stings. But what about insects that our pets catch and swallow? Most are harmless, but a few are unsafe for pets. As warm weather arrives, keep an eye out for insects that can cause trouble if they’re eaten.
Pesticides and insecticides can also be toxic to pets. Keep these products out of your pets’ reach and use them only according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Dogs and cats are most likely to get a toxic dose if they’re sprayed with the product or eat a significant amount. A pet that eats a single pesticide-covered insect would ingest a little bit of the product, but the amount would probably be too small to cause a problem (call your veterinarian if you’re unsure or if your pet shows any symptoms).
Caterpillar hairs can be irritating to the touch, and some types of hairs release a toxin. Fur typically protects dogs’ and cats’ skin from the stings of caterpillar hairs. If a pet eats a caterpillar, though, the hairs can irritate the mouth and throat. Symptoms include drooling, pawing at the mouth, shaking the head, vomiting, and trouble swallowing. Processionary caterpillars (found in Europe, North Africa, and Asia) produce a toxin that causes an especially severe reaction.[1,2]
Fireflies are highly toxic to lizards, amphibians, and birds. Ingestion of a single firefly can kill a bearded dragon. Fireflies contain lucibufagins, which are chemicals that cause heart damage in susceptible species.
Asian Lady Beetles
Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) look a lot like ladybugs, but unlike ladybugs they gather in large numbers and come inside houses in cold weather. As a defense mechanism, they secrete an irritating chemical compound. One published report describes a dog with oral trauma similar to chemical burns caused by 16 Asian lady beetles stuck to the roof of the mouth.
Blister beetles (family Meloidae) produce a toxin called cantharidin, an irritant that causes blistering on contact with the skin, mouth, or digestive tract. Cantharidin poisoning is most common in horses that eat alfalfa hay contaminated with blister beetles. Exposure can be fatal to horses. Other species, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and people, are also susceptible to cantharidin poisoning.
The insects known as walking sticks (order Phasmatodea) use camouflage as their main defense mechanism, but some of them also secrete a chemical that can burn the eyes or mouth. Anisomorpha buprestoides, a stick insect found in the southern United States, can aim this secretion directly at the face of a predator. Severe eye damage has been reported in humans and a dog.
Brachinus beetles are called bombardier beetles because they secrete a toxic chemical that they aim at predators in what is usually described as “explosive discharge.” This chemical irritant is released at a boiling temperature. Although I did not find any research reports of bombardier beetle poisoning in dogs or cats, I can’t imagine that eating one would be a comfortable experience.
1. Bad bugs, bad bugs: what you should do to keep your pets safe. ASPCA. August 1, 2018. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.aspca.org/news/bad-bugs-bad-bugs-what-you-should-do-keep-your-pets-safe
2. Fuzzy green poisoners: caterpillar toxicosis in pets. ASPCA Pro. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/fuzzy-green-poisoners-caterpillar-toxicosis-pets
3. Treating firefly toxicosis in lizards. ASPCA Pro. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/treating-firefly-toxicosis-lizards
4. Stocks IC, Lindsey DE. Acute corrosion of the oral mucosa in a dog due to ingestion of multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis: Coccinellidae). Toxicon. 2008;52(2):389-391. doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2008.05.010
5. Schmitz DG. Overview of cantharidin poisoning. Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated June 2013. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/cantharidin-poisoning/overview-of-cantharidin-poisoning
6. Thomas MC. Featured creatures: twostriped walkingstick. University of Florida Entomology & Nematology. Publication No. EENY-314. November 2003. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/walkingstick.htm
7. Schaller JC, Davidowitz G, Papaj DR, Smith RL, Carrière Y, Moore W. Molecular phylogeny, ecology and multispecies aggregation behaviour of bombardier beetles in Arizona. PLoS One. 2018;13(10):e0205192. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0205192
Photo by Kazuky Akayashi
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
On January 11, 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert about certain Sportmix pet foods recalled because of high levels of aflatoxin. At the time of the alert, 70 dogs had died and more than 80 were sick (not all of them officially confirmed as having aflatoxin poisoning).
Other pet foods have been recalled in the past because of aflatoxin. For a list of foods included in the current recall, see the FDA alert: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-alert-certain-lots-sportmix-pet-food-recalled-potentially-fatal-levels-aflatoxin
Aflatoxins are produced by molds (Aspergillus species) that grow on grains like corn. Animals are exposed by eating contaminated animal diets or moldy corn, peanuts, or other foods. Food doesn’t have to look moldy to be contaminated with aflatoxins.
Because commercial dog food is typically the main component of a dog’s diet and dogs usually eat from a single bag of food until it’s finished, even low levels of aflatoxin in the food can accumulate in the body and cause symptoms.
The liver is the main organ affected. Liver damage causes nonspecific digestive tract symptoms. Severe liver damage reduces the ability of the blood to clot and can lead to central nervous system problems. Death occurs quickly in some animals with aflatoxin poisoning. Symptoms include the following:
The symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning aren’t specific and could have a number of causes. Diagnosis begins with history, physical examination, and blood and urine tests. If test results show liver damage and a toxin is suspected, the next step is obtaining a complete history of everything the animal has been exposed to, including all foods and treats. Food samples and possibly tissue samples from the body can be sent to a laboratory to test for aflatoxin.
Treatment consists of supportive care and management of problems (like blood clotting disorders) caused by liver failure. Specific treatment depends on the individual patient’s needs.
What You Should Do
The FDA recommends that pet owners take these steps:
See this FDA page for information about reporting possible problems with pet food: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/report-problem/how-report-pet-food-complaint
Watch for pet food recall alerts in the news and on social media. The FDA posts recalls on the FDA Recalls Twitter account: https://twitter.com/FDArecalls
1. FDA alert: certain lots of Sportmix pet food recalled for potentially fatal levels of aflatoxin. US Food and Drug Administration. Updated January 11, 2021. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-alert-certain-lots-sportmix-pet-food-recalled-potentially-fatal-levels-aflatoxin
2. Martínez-Martínez L, Valdivia-Flores AG, Guerrero-Barrera AL, Quezada-Tristán T, Rangel-Muñoz EJ, Ortiz-Martínez R. Toxic effect of aflatoxins in dogs fed contaminated commercial dry feed: a review. Toxins (Basel). 2021;13(1):E65. doi:10.3390/toxins13010065
3. Aflatoxin poisoning in pets. US Food and Drug Administration. Updated January 8, 2021. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/aflatoxin-poisoning-pets
Photo by Jornada Produtora
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Many over-the-counter (nonprescription) cold and flu medications contain ingredients that are toxic to dogs and cats. Keep all medications out of reach of your pets, and check with your veterinarian before giving a pet any medication—even remedies that are safe for children.
Cold medications are often sold as combination or multisymptom products containing more than 1 active ingredient. If your veterinarian recommends giving your pet a nonprescription medication, read the product label carefully to be sure it contains only the medication your veterinarian has approved.
Ingestion of some cold and flu products (especially oral decongestants, nasal sprays, eye drops, and pain relievers) is a medical emergency in animals. If your pet is exposed, contact a veterinary clinic or pet poison hotline:
Decongestants are often added to allergy medications and combination cold and cough remedies. If your veterinarian has recommended a nonprescription antihistamine for your pet, be sure that the product you use does not contain a decongestant. Look for label wording like congestion, stuffy nose, runny nose, multisymptom, or sinus pressure; these probably mean that the product includes a decongestant. Names of products containing decongestants might end in D (for example, Claritin-D and Mucinex D) or PE (as in Sudafed PE).
Pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine are the most common oral (by-mouth) decongestants. Both are dangerous for animals. In the United States, pseudoephedrine is sold without a prescription but with restrictions: it’s sold only in limited quantities, is usually kept behind the pharmacy counter or in a locked cabinet, and requires that the buyer show identification. If you’re not sure of the ingredients of your cold medication, knowing whether you took it from an open shelf or had to ask the pharmacist for it will help you figure out whether it is likely to contain pseudoephedrine.
Pseudoephedrine stimulates the cardiovascular system and certain nervous system pathways. It reduces nasal congestion by shrinking tiny blood vessels in the nose. It has a very narrow margin of safety in animals, meaning that a small dose can have serious consequences for a dog or cat. Symptoms of pseudoephedrine toxicity include the following:
The time of symptom onset depends on the formulation. With immediate-release products, symptoms can begin within minutes of ingestion. With extended-release products, symptoms might not appear for several hours.
Phenylephrine is an ingredient in oral cold remedies, hemorrhoid creams, nasal sprays, and some eye drops. Animals are exposed by swallowing the product. The most common symptom is vomiting; other symptoms are similar to those of pseudoephedrine toxicity. Phenylephrine is not as toxic as pseudoephedrine at low doses.
Nasal Sprays and Eye Drops
Oxymetazoline, tetrahydrozoline, naphazoline, and xylometazoline are imidazolines, a class of decongestant used in nasal sprays and eye drops (examples are Afrin and Visine). Animals—usually dogs—who chew the bottle and ingest the liquid can develop vomiting, lethargy, incoordination, slow heart rate, tremors, and coma. Imidazoline ingestion can be fatal.
Some nasal sprays contain xylitol, a sweetener that is safe for humans but toxic to pets. Plain saline nasal rinses with no ingredients other than water and salt should be safe if accidentally ingested, but don’t squirt them up your pet’s nose.
Combination cold and flu products commonly contain pain relievers, most of which are unsafe for dogs and cats. Acetaminophen is extremely toxic to cats even at low doses. It causes liver failure, damage to hemoglobin in red blood cells, and death. It can also cause liver damage in dogs. Ibuprofen and naproxen are in a class of pain relievers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. In dogs and cats, these medications can cause stomach ulcers, digestive tract bleeding, kidney damage, and liver damage.
Cough Suppressants and Cough Drops
Dextromethorphan is an antitussive, or cough suppressant, included in many cough remedies and combination cold and flu products. Animals who ingest dextromethorphan can develop vomiting, lethargy, rapid heart rate, and seizures.
Potentially toxic ingredients in cough drops include xylitol, which causes a dangerous drop in blood sugar in dogs, and benzocaine, which can cause upset stomach and possibly damage to red blood cells.
In high enough doses, zinc can damage red blood cells. Essential oils like menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus oil can cause skin reactions if applied topically. If swallowed or absorbed through the skin, these oils can cause symptoms ranging from vomiting to nervous system problems.
1. Pseudoephedrine toxicity in pets. ASPCApro. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/pseudoephedrine-toxicity-pets
2. Wegenast C. Toxicology brief: phenylephrine ingestion in dogs: what's the harm? DVM360. November 1, 2012. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.dvm360.com/view/toxicology-brief-phenylephrine-ingestion-dogs-whats-harm
3. Imidazoline. Pet Poison Helpline. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/imidazoline/
4. Dextromethorphan ingestion in pets. ASPCApro. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/dextromethorphan-ingestion-pets
Photo by Shlomi Platzman
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Happy holidays! Keep your cat safe from these common household dangers when you’re preparing for the season.
Ribbons, tinsel, yarn, twine, fishing line, thread, garland, and other long strings are hazardous if swallowed. A string in the digestive tract can cause a linear foreign body obstruction. Cats with digestive tract obstruction need surgery to prevent serious damage to the intestines. Keep this danger in mind when choosing holiday decorations. Wide ribbons might be less of a swallowing hazard than narrow ribbons.
Tinsel is especially attractive to cats because it’s sparkly, so a long string of tinsel is an intestinal obstruction waiting to happen. Watch out for glass ornaments that can cut paws if they mysteriously land on the floor and break. Expect that your cats will treat all glittery and shiny items as cat toys and decorate accordingly. Wood and fabric ornaments are safer than glass ornaments in a household with cats.
With Christmas trees, the goal is to prevent damage to your cat and damage to property. Christmas tree dangers to cats include tree water (might contain preservatives or pesticides), swallowed pine needles, broken or swallowed ornaments, electrical wires, and being hit by a falling tree.
If your cat ignores the tree, you might not need to do anything more than keep breakable ornaments on high branches, cat-safe (or no) ornaments on low branches, and a close eye on your cat when he’s in the room with the tree. But if your cat is young, curious, adventurous, or new to your home, assume he’ll want to climb the Christmas tree.
The safest approach is to either not have a tree or to close the door and keep the cat out of the room. If your cat has access to the tree, use a sturdy base and secure the tree to the ceiling or walls so it can’t tip over. Don’t use any breakable ornaments if your cat is a climber. To prevent electrocution, keep the tree lights unplugged when you’re not watching your cat.
Try giving your cat a more attractive alternative, like a high perch and new toys or a cat Christmas tree (maybe made from a cardboard box). You could try bitter orange spray or an unappealing floor covering around the tree (aluminum foil, adhesive paper with the sticky side up, or a nonslip rug gripper with the pointy side up), but don’t count on deterrents like these to keep your cat out of the tree.
Lilies are among the most dangerous plants for cats; don’t bring them in your house at all if you have a cat. Holly, mistletoe, and amaryllis are toxic to cats to some degree. Poinsettias are mildly toxic to cats.
Flames and Electrical Wires
Cats like to push things off tables and are curious about new items in their living space. Don’t leave a cat alone with lit candles, which are a fire hazard if knocked over. Cats will also chew on electrical cords, so cover the cords and keep lights and other electrical decor unplugged when not in use.
Onions, leeks, chives, and garlic are toxic to cats. Chocolate, alcohol, raw bread dough, fatty food, raw eggs, raw meat, and bones are also dangerous for cats. See the blog post on human foods that are toxic to pets for more information. If you’d like to share some of your holiday meal with your cat, see the post on Thanksgiving foods that are safe for dogs and cats.
Photo by Jessica Lewis
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Xylitol is a sugar substitute that is safe for humans but toxic to dogs. It is an ingredient in sugar-free gum and a variety of foods, especially products for people who have diabetes or need food with a low glycemic index. Xylitol is added to some oral care products because it slows the growth of bacteria that cause dental cavities.
Products that contain xylitol might or might not be labeled as being sugar free or low in sugar. Xylitol is found in products like these:
Effects in Dogs
Xylitol is safe for most animals, but dogs don’t metabolize xylitol the same way as other species. Compared with humans, dogs absorb more of the xylitol they ingest and process it more quickly. Xylitol causes dogs’ insulin levels to surge, resulting in rapid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level).[1,2] Ingestion of larger amounts of xylitol can damage the liver and interfere with blood clotting.
Symptoms of xylitol poisoning in dogs can appear as soon as 30 minutes after ingestion but might be delayed for several hours. These are some of the common symptoms:
Other sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners (sorbitol, aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin) should be safe for dogs. Xylitol does not seem to be toxic to cats.
What to Do
If your dog eats sugarless gum or another product that might contain xylitol, call a veterinary clinic or an animal poison control hotline right away. Keep the packaging if possible so the amount of xylitol your dog ingested can be estimated. Do not try to make your dog vomit. Induced (forced) vomiting can be dangerous for a dog whose blood glucose level is already dropping.
Treatment usually involves hospitalization, intravenous medications to correct hypoglycemia, and continued monitoring of laboratory values. Dogs with liver involvement and more serious symptoms need more intensive treatment.
Dogs that ingest small amounts of xylitol and are treated promptly tend to recover well. The prognosis is poorer for dogs that develop liver damage and blood clotting problems.
How to Keep Your Dog Safe
Keep candy, baked goods, and other products that might contain xylitol away from your dog (watch out for counter surfers!). If you keep gum or mints in your purse, don’t leave your purse where your dog can reach it. Don’t brush your dog’s teeth with toothpaste meant for humans. Read product labels to check for artificial sweeteners; sorbitol should be OK but xylitol is not.
1. DuHadway MR, Sharp CR, Meyers KE, Koenigshof AM. Retrospective evaluation of xylitol ingestion in dogs: 192 cases (2007-2012). J Vet Emerg Crit Care (San Antonio). 2015;25(5):646-654. doi:10.1111/vec.12350
2. Dunayer EK. New findings on the effects of xylitol ingestion in dogs. Vet Med. 2006;101(12):791-797.
3. Dunayer EK, Gwaltney-Brant SM. Acute hepatic failure and coagulopathy associated with xylitol ingestion in eight dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2006;229(7):1113-1117. doi:10.2460/javma.229.7.1113
4. Jerzsele Á, Karancsi Z, Pászti-Gere E, et al. Effects of p.o. administered xylitol in cats. J Vet Pharmacol Ther. 2018;41(3):409-414. doi:10.1111/jvp.12479
Photo by regipen
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Most wild mushrooms aren’t dangerous, but some are fatal if eaten. Keep your pets safe by removing wild mushrooms from their environment.
Because it’s not easy to know if a wild mushroom is poisonous, treat any wild mushroom ingestion as a medical emergency. If your dog or cat eats wild mushrooms, call an emergency animal clinic, your veterinary clinic, or a pet poison hotline right away. Don’t wait until your pet gets sick before you call. Some of the most toxic mushrooms don’t cause symptoms until hours after they’re swallowed.
Pet poison hotlines (fees might apply):
ASPCA Animal Poison Control: 888-426-4435
Pet Poison Helpline: 855-764-7661
Photos of toxic mushrooms in North Carolina:
NC State Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox: mushrooms
Symptoms of mushroom poisoning depend on the type of mushroom and the amount eaten. Toxic mushrooms can be categorized by the type of problem they cause: liver and kidney failure, central nervous system effects, muscarinic reactions, hallucinations, or gastrointestinal irritation.
Liver and Kidney Failure
The mushrooms responsible for the most deaths are in the Amanita, Galerina, and Lepiota genera. Examples are Amanita phalloides (death cap), Amanita bisporigera (destroying angel), and Galerina autumnalis (autumn skullcap).
The toxic compounds in these mushrooms are amatoxins, phallotoxins, or virotoxins. These toxins damage cells of the liver, kidneys, and intestines. The symptoms progress through stages:
Central Nervous System Effects
Mushrooms containing the compounds ibotenic acid and muscimol affect the central nervous system. The mushrooms most often involved in this type of poisoning are Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) and Amanita pantherina. Symptoms usually begin 30 minutes to 2 hours after ingestion (possibly earlier in cats) and include the following:
Muscarine is a substance that affects a specific metabolic pathway in cells of the body. Ingestion of muscarine-containing mushrooms—usually Clitocybe and Inocybe species—causes clinical signs related to part of the nervous system that regulates routine (not conscious) body functions. Symptoms appear a few minutes to a couple of hours after ingestion:
Hallucinogenic mushrooms include those in the genera Psilocybe, Conocybe, Panaeolus, Copelandia, Pluteus, and Gymnopilus. The toxic components are psilocybin and psilocin, which are similar to the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Symptoms usually begin within an hour or two after ingestion:
Many mushrooms cause gastrointestinal (digestive tract) problems. The exact toxin in most of these mushrooms is not known. Some of the mushroom genera that cause this type of problem are Chlorophyllum (which often forms fairy rings on lawns), Omphalotus, and Scleroderma. Symptoms usually begin soon after ingestion and improve on their own within a few hours. Most symptoms are mild:
Diagnosing mushroom poisoning is difficult unless the animal is seen eating the mushroom or vomits up pieces of mushroom. Known access to wild mushrooms, compatible symptoms, and physical examination findings can put mushroom poisoning on the list of possibilities. Blood and urine tests are used to assess organ function in dogs with symptoms.
Treatment depends on the symptoms and type of mushroom (if known). Animals exposed to the most toxic mushrooms need early and aggressive treatment to survive. Unfortunately, early treatment isn’t possible if the ingestion was not witnessed and symptoms don’t begin until several hours later.
No antidote is available for mushroom poisoning. The best way to manage the risk is to prevent pets from eating wild mushrooms.
1. Hovda LR. Unfriendly fungi: five groups of mushrooms toxic to pets. DVM 360. Published October 20, 2015. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://www.dvm360.com/view/unfriendly-fungi-five-types-mushrooms-toxic-pets
2. Brownie CF. Poisonous mushrooms. Merck Veterinary Manual. Updated August 2014. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/poisonous-mushrooms
3. Cope RB. Toxicology brief: mushroom poisoning in dogs. DVM 360. Published February 1, 2007. Accessed July 23, 2020. https://www.dvm360.com/view/toxicology-brief-mushroom-poisoning-dogs
Photo of Galerina species by Bernard Spragg
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.