Is Mistletoe Poisonous for People and Pets?

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It's a staple of the holidays—but is mistletoe poisonous? Learn about mistletoe poisoning symptoms and how they differ in people and pets.

mistletoe berriesniknak99/Getty Images
American mistletoe berries

It roots itself in everything from movies to song lyrics, ever since Mommy got caught kissing Santa Claus. With all the warm fuzzies it inspires, there’s no denying mistletoe is an essential (and romantic) part of the Christmas season. But since it’s always good to use caution when decorating with plants, you might wonder — is mistletoe poisonous to pets or people? We have the answer.

Is Mistletoe Poisonous to People?

Couple in Santa hats kissing underneath mistletoeJose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
A sprig of American mistletoe is unlikely to be dangerous for your loved ones.

Much like poinsettias, the answer here is “yes, but not as poisonous as you’d think.” According to Poison Control, the confusion stems from mixing up two types of mistletoe: American and European. Much of American mistletoe’s bad rap comes from its European relative (Viscum album), which is highly toxic and dangerous if swallowed. American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum), however, has less severe side effects.

Discover 7 surprising facts about holiday flowers and plants.

While all parts of the plant are toxic, the most common mistletoe poisoning symptom in humans is gastrointestinal upset. (Think stomachaches.) With that said, it’s possible to show no symptoms at all. A study conducted in 1996 examined nearly 100 cases of mistletoe ingestion, and it found most patients had no notable side effects. So, while you certainly wouldn’t want to munch on a fistful of American mistletoe, its reputation as highly toxic to humans is unwarranted. Touching or handling the plant should not cause irritation.

Is Mistletoe Poisonous to Pets?

In pets, side effects of American mistletoe poisoning can be more dangerous. The ASPCA reports that mistletoe is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. The organization lists symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, low heart rate and, in rare cases, low blood pressure. Thankfully, the FDA says that severe mistletoe poisoning in pets is rare. Extremely severe cases typically occur only if the animal eats a large amount of the plant.

For a festive, pet-friendly indoor plant, try growing a Christmas cactus.

Should I Decorate With Mistletoe?

is mistletoe poisonousCourtesy Lea Frye
Artificial mistletoe is a safe and festive alternative for pet owners.

While the effects on humans are mostly limited to upset stomachs, it’s still a good idea to use caution when putting up mistletoe at the holiday season. You’ll want to limit the amount you display and keep the plant away from curious children or pets. Hang it out of reach, if possible.

If you’d rather not decorate with the live plant, you can purchase artificial mistletoe—although we don’t recommend swallowing that, either.

Psst—you’ll also want to keep your pets away from amaryllis and tulips.

Where Does a Mistletoe Plant Grow?

Mistletoe in a Tree in Chattanoogajlwhaley/Getty Images
Mistletoe in a tree in Chattanooga, Tennessee

More than just a holiday decoration, American mistletoe grows in the wild throughout the eastern and southern United States. To spot it in the wild, look for ball-shaped green growths on tree branches. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant.

is mistletoe poisonous, mistletoeNoelle Johnson
Palo Verde branch infested with American mistletoe

It springs up on existing trees, using them as a food source (although it rarely grows quickly enough to harm the trees.) And while humans shouldn’t munch on mistletoe berries, birds love them.

Next, check out 8 types of Christmas trees you can grow.

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Emily Hannemann
Emily Hannemann is an associate digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in magazine writing from the University of Missouri - Columbia. When she’s not writing and editing, you’ll find her swimming, running, or hiking. She knows blue jays are controversial, but she loves them anyway.