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What if your pet eats your poinsettia?

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler writes, "Ohio State University tackled the poinsettia poison issue in 1971 with an extensive study in which rats were fed large quantities of poinsettia leaves, with no adverse effects, other than weight gain. Their research was the first scientific study that exonerated the poinsettia."

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The myth that poinsettias are poisonous has been proven false by research.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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The educational campaign to debunk the old myth of poinsettias being poisonous has been quite successful. Most people have gotten the message that poinsettias won’t kill humans if consumed. But what about your pet?

Poinsettias were considered poisonous as recently as 1970, when the Food and Drug Administration issued a press release saying one poinsettia leaf could kill a child. Apparently, the myth started in 1919 when it was rumored that a 2-year-old child in Hawaii died after chewing on a poinsettia leaf.

The child did indeed die, but from causes totally unrelated to eating the poinsettia leaf. But that was enough for authorities to declare the poinsettia poisonous for the next 50 years.

Ohio State University tackled the poinsettia poison issue in 1971 with an extensive study in which rats were fed large quantities of poinsettia leaves, with no adverse effects, other than weight gain. Their research was the first scientific study that exonerated the poinsettia.

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Although poinsettias are not lethal, the milky sap can be an irritant to those sensitive.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

In 1974, a Canadian horticulturist ate the leaves of a poinsettia plant in front of members of the media to prove that poinsettias were non-poisonous, which further publicized the safety of poinsettias.

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Poinsettias won’t kill humans, but what about pets? What if cats and dogs chew or consume poinsettia leaves?

Poinsettias have a toxicity rating of “low.” The low-toxicity, rather than no-toxicity, is because the milky sap can irritate the mouth and cause rashes, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Universities including Purdue, Cornell and many others reiterate the non-lethal nature of poinsettias, including for pets.

If cats and dogs eat poinsettias, they might develop the mild symptoms mentioned, but quickly recover. Some individual animals have no adverse effects from poinsettia consumption, and no deaths are recorded from pets eating poinsettias.

The Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University answers the question in great depth: “Poinsettias are not poisonous to dogs, cats or people. Poinsettia’s white latex sap in the leaves and stems is mildly irritating to the mucous membranes of the mouth and in some animals will induce excessive salivation and vomiting if the plant parts are swallowed.

“The hybrid poinsettias available today have very little irritating compounds compared to the parent species. Unless a cat or dog eats a considerable amount of the poinsettia plant, the animal is not likely to show any effects. Although the modern-day poinsettias sold commercially during the holiday season are not a serious risk to animals, it does not mean that if a pet has a habit of chewing on plants that it should be allowed to.”

As mentioned previously, the sap of poinsettias can be an irritant, and pets aren’t the only ones who can show sensitivity. Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbia family, which includes the cultivated rubber tree from which natural latex is derived. Humans allergic to latex might also experience irritation from the milky sap found in poinsettia stems and leaves.

Although poinsettias aren’t lethal, that doesn’t mean they should be consumed. It’s wise to keep all plants that are not edible food sources out of reach of pets and children who might be tempted to nibble.

More gardening columns from Don Kinzler

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.
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