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Dear Dr. Jorden: I am decorating for Christmas and am concerned about putting out poinsettia plants. I have a bird that flies around the house and a cat and dog. Are they really poisonous to my animals?

Dear Reader: I think the issue of how poisonous the poinsettia plant is must be one of the most embarrassing issues in veterinary medicine. For the last 100 years, we have accepted and promoted the idea that the poinsettia plant was very poisonous to animals. It was just one of those accepted things, passed down for generations. Then, probably some desperate veterinary scholar who needed an easy research project to publish decided to test it out and see just how the poison worked.

Out of the dark ages came the realization that this Christmas traditional plant, the poinsettia, is not poisonous at all. It is quite bitter, so animals are not likely to eat much of it anyway. If they consume a bunch of it, they might have an upset stomach and some diarrhea but are not really poisoned at all. 

An interesting fact I have read about states that people who are allergic to latex are likely to also be allergic to the poinsettia as well. Any sap or plant fluid from the plant can cause a temporary blindness if put in the eye.

Mistletoe is very benign as well, being a plant that is eaten and pollinated by wild birds where it grows naturally. 

Christmas trees have lots of sticky sap that would be a nuisance to pets but should not hurt them either. The only thing that might bother them is if the tree is sprayed by some chemical to keep it green for the season. You would have to consult with the place where you buy your tree for that information.

Watch out for the tinsel, though. Cats love to play with it and end up chewing on it. If they swallow it, the sharp tinsel will saw right through the intestine as the bowels try to move it along. String will do the same thing, with the pot roast string being a major culprit during the holiday season. Angel hair on the tree is about as bad as the tinsel.

Extension cords brought out to light up the house are a potential hazard to pets. Cats can get a huge surprise when they decide to chew on them. I had a cat come in with a bad burn all the way through his tongue from the electrical shock one time. The necrosis from the electricity eventually made about one half of the tongue fall off.  The cat survived, but grooming, eating and drinking were forever a problem.

Enough of all this “bah, humbug” stuff about Christmas decorating and cheer. Get your cat a catnip mouse to occupy him for the holidays, kiss your dog under the mistletoe, and fill every room with red poinsettias and have a very Merry Christmas.

Have questions about pets? Write to: PetVet; c/o The Billings Gazette; P.O. Box 36300; Billings, MT 59107-6300. Questions of general interest may become topics of future columns.

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