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Holiday Safety for Pets: Holly

Holly plant

Christmas or English holly is a common holiday ornamental that may prove to be irresistible to your pets.  Although there are two genera of holly, the Ilex genus, with its 29 species, are all toxic. 

The scientific name for the English holly is Ilex aquifoliumToxic compounds may be found in both the leaves as well as the berries of the plant. The Ilex species contains several compounds that can prove to be toxic including: glucosidic saponins, methylzanthines (caffeine, theobromine and theophylline) and a cyanogenic diglucoside.  

Most of the clinical signs of holly poisoning in pets are attributed to the saponins, which cause mild to moderate gastrointestinal upset.  Consumption of holly may lead to:

  • excessive salivation
  • vomiting
  • lack of appetite
  • diarrhea 

Pets are often seen shaking their heads and may smack their lips.  Gastric obstruction can be caused by the ingestion of large numbers of leaves and will result in more severe clinical signs characteristic of obstruction.

When poisoning is caught early, vomiting may be induced followed by activated charcoal to limit absorption of the toxic factors.  When needed, additional tretment is symptomatic and supportive.  Rinsing the mouth with water will help remove mucosal irritants.  Withholding food and water may be necessary in pets with persistent vomiting.  With severe poisoning, intravenous fluid therapy may be required to maintain hydration.  

Please call or visit your veterinarian if your pet has ingested any holly parts.  


Peterson, Michael and Patricia Talcott.  Small Animal Toxicology. 2nd Edition. Elsevier. 2006. Pp. 646-647.

Volmer, Petra.  “How Dangerous are winter and spring Holiday Plants to Pets?”  Veterinary Medicine.  December 2002.  Pp. 879-884.

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