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Holiday Safety for Pets: Mistletoe

Dog sniffing a Christmas decoration

Though it's a fun holiday tradition for humans, mistletoe is toxic for pets.  Learn more about how to keep pets safe this holiday season. 

Pets become exposed to the toxic effects of mistletoe when the vine is bought in the home for as holiday decoration.  It is an English custom that any two people who meet under a hanging piece of mistletoe are obliged to kiss each other.  According to tradition, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of the Christmas greens after Christmas Eve.

Many toxins have been found in various species of both American and European mistletoe.  These toxins include glycoprotein lectins, phoratoxins, aminobutyric acid, alkaloids, phenethylamines and flavonoids.

Mistletoe is semiparasitic vine that takes water and inorganic nutrients from their deciduous tree host while carrying out some photosynthesis on their own.  There are 43 species of mistletoe, eight of which are of toxic significance.  Phoradendoron flavescens, the American mistletoe, primarily parasitizes oak or walnut trees while Viscum album, the European mistletoe, prefers apple trees.  These two species of mistletoe are the most commonly implemented in toxicities.  Both American and European mistletoe has ovoid leaves which are opposite in arrangement along the stem.  The flowers are tiny and inconspicuous with the fruits being white.

Clinical signs occur within 2 to 24 hours after ingestion of the leaves, berries or a tea made from the berries.  Clinical signs of toxicity are typically a severe gastroenteritis with prolonged emesis (vomiting) followed by depression.  In spite of the number of toxic substances available, serious poisonings are infrequent. 

Treatment associated with any of these plants is symptomatic and supportive. Treatment is aimed at decreasing the gastrointestinal distress and assuring the pet does not become dehydrated or develop and electrolyte imbalance.  Demulcents and antacids are often of great benefit.  


Ettinger, Stephen DVM and Edward Feldman DVM.  Veterinary Internal Medicine. 6th Edition. Vol. 1. 2005. Elsevier. p.252.

Kahn, Cynthia ed. The Merck Veterinary Manual. 9th Edition. 2005. Pp. 2438-2439.

Volmer, Petra DVM.  “How Dangerous are Winter and Spring Holiday Plants to Pets?”  Veterinary Medicine.  December 2002. p. 879.

“Mistletoe” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Fowler, Murray DVM.  Plant Poisoning in Small Companion Animals.  Ralston Purina. 1981. Pp. 12-14.

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