Decorating Safely for Christmas


As the holiday season brings Christmas trees, decorations, and holiday foods, pets may take the opportunity to create mischief. 

Dr. Murl Bailey, a senior professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, provides some common dangers for pet owners to be aware of throughout the holiday season.

Festive Plants

Holiday plants such as Christmas trees, holly, and mistletoe can make their way indoors throughout December. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that between 25-30 million Christmas trees are sold annually in the U.S. this time of year.   

While it is not common for cats and dogs to eat tree needles during the holidays, according to Bailey, those that do can experience health issues; fortunately, those issues are self-limiting, meaning symptoms can be resolved without veterinary treatment.

“If cats and dogs eat Christmas tree needles, they might develop vomiting and a little diarrhea,” Bailey said. “Owners should withhold food and water until the symptoms go away.”

Bailey explained that the dangers between eating live tree needles and artificial tree needles are about the same; however, dangers associated with the lights and trimmings used to decorate the tree may pose greater threats to pets. 

“I worry more about pets chewing on the electrical wires and getting some electrical burns in and around the mouth,” Bailey said. 

In addition to trees, there are numerous holiday plants that could be problematic if ingested by dogs and cats.

Before bringing festive plants home, Bailey recommends pet owners familiarize themselves with the dangers associated with common plants used to celebrate the season, such as the following:

  • Holly: The common signs that a dog or cat has eaten holly include excessive saliva, vomiting, diarrhea, head shaking, and lip smacking. 
  • Mistletoe: Serious symptoms are not common if a pet has eaten mistletoe, but symptoms can include vomiting and depression. 
  • Poinsettia: The sap of a poinsettia can cause skin irritation, which can be resolved by bathing your pet with soap and water. If a pet has eaten some of the plant, they may experience excessive saliva, vomiting, and rarely diarrhea. 
  • Rosemary: Depending on the amount of rosemary eaten, mild symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, while harsher symptoms include weakness, depression, and weight loss.

 If your pet has had contact with any of these festive plants, it is recommended that you call your veterinarian for guidance. 

 Delectable Decorations

With the holidays comes delicious foods, too, which can be in the form of edible ornaments. Just as certain plants can make a pet sick if ingested, edible ornaments like candy canes or ornaments made of pastry can make a pet sick and should not be hung on lower limbs where pets have easier access, Bailey explained.

Bailey also advises owners to not let pets, and especially dogs, have access to chocolate or foods that have xylitol. Xylitol is widely used as a sugar substitute and can be found in sugar-free candy, gum, baked goods, and some peanut butters.

“Dogs are very susceptible to xylitol,” Bailey explained. “It causes hypoglycemia, which makes dogs develop a very low blood sugar, and this is an emergency. It is similar to when diabetic humans forget to eat, causing their blood sugar to drop and become life-threatening. ”

Bailey recommends looking for xylitol under the ingredients list for foods that use sugar or sugar substitutes so that pets can avoid getting sick. If a pet does eat too much xylitol, they should be taken to a veterinary clinic as soon as possible to receive the best possible treatment.

To prevent emergency situations during the Christmas season, owners should keep electrical wires out of reach or hidden, place dangerous plants where pets can’t get to them, and be mindful of what holiday treats pets eat. Taking such precautions will ensure that you and your pets will have a season that is merry and bright!

Pet Talk is a service of the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to [email protected].  

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