Holiday Pet Perils
The holidays are stressful enough without having to worry about a potentially poisoned pet. We tend to over-indulge ourselves and this usually results in a bit of seemingly harmless indulgences for our pets. With all the visitors, chaos and extra food around, our furry friends can easily get caught up in the hustle and bustle of it all – sometimes with ill effects. Everyone had heard stories from friends and family about the dog that ate a plate full of brownies, or the cat that climbed up the Christmas tree but what they didn’t tell you is how long it took to clean up their house after that dog vomited and had diarrhea all over the Berber carpet, or that the cat required abdominal surgery to remove the piece of tinsel she ate off the tree that became stuck in her small intestine.
Below is a list of holiday-related decorations, plants and food items that the veterinarians at Hillcrest Animal Hospital recommend keeping away from pets. Please click on the links or scroll down for more details on each item.
2. Xylitol (sugar-free candies and gum)
3. Meat and other human foods
4. Christmas Trees, Tree Water, Pine Needles
5. Electrical Cords
6. Ribbons, Tinsel, Garland
7. Ornaments and Light Bulbs
9. Holly, Mistletoe
12. Grapes, Raisins, Currents
13. Macadamia Nuts
14. Snow Globes
15. Potpourri and Candles
Chocolate: Chocolate contains high amounts of fat and caffeine-like stimulants known as methylxanthines. If ingested in significant amounts, chocolate can potentially produce effects in dogs and cats ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to panting, excessive thirst and urination, hyperactivity, abnormal heart rhythm, tremors, seizures and even death in severe cases. Typically, the darker the chocolate, the higher the potential for problems from methylxanthine poisoning. White chocolate has the lowest methylxanthine content, while baking chocolate contains the highest. As little as 20 ounces of milk chocolate—or only two ounces of baking chocolate—can cause serious problems in a 10-pound dog. While white chocolate may not have the same potential as darker forms to cause a methylxanthine poisoning, the high fat content of lighter chocolates could still lead to vomiting and diarrhea, as well as the possible development of life-threatening pancreatitis, an inflammatory condition of the pancreas. The take home message here is that if your lab eats an M&M off the floor, no worries, but if your yorkie eats a couple of squares of bakers chocolate you need to visit your veterinarian.
Xylitol (sugar-free candies and gum): The sweetener used in sugarless gums and mints can rapidly cause a life-threatening drop in blood sugar and liver failure in dogs. So place visitors’ purses, coats and luggage high enough that probing canines can’t reach. Same goes for guests’ medicines. Human medicine ingestion, in fact, is the most frequent cause of emergency visits in pets.
Meat and other human foods: The smell of food fills the air and even though it might be tempting to give your pet a treat, remember that there are a lot of human foods that can be harmful for your pet.What about the delicious pork roast? If an animal consumes a significant amount of fatty food and their system is not used to it, pancreatitis can develop. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the organ that secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestines. The most obvious signs are generally abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. If left untreated, pancreatitis can sometimes lead to death. Another concern is the potential for obstruction and puncture of the GI tract by the bones that your pet might ingest. Almost all veterinarians can tell you multiple stories about bones they have surgically removed from dogs. We are usually able to remove these obstructions without too much trouble but sometimes the obstruction will rupture the intestines causing peritonitis or an infection of the abdominal cavity. This is an extremely serious life threatening condition.
Christmas tree, tree water, pine needles: Cats in particular love Christmas trees. They are fresh smelling scratching posts, climbing challenges, and hideaways filled with all kinds of shiny objects to play with. For dogs, the Christmas tree represents hidden chewable treats to be found amongst the brightly wrapped gifts.
The water for real Christmas trees can contain ingredients such as bleach and vinegar which are caustic and can cause some gastrointestinal irritations. It can also contain bacteria, fertilizer, and pesticides so it is very important to keep pets away from drinking tree water. Prevent slurping by stretching aluminum foil across the bowl (cats hate that) and then covering it with the tree skirt, taped to the trunk. You may also want to secure the tree with a fishing line string to a hook on the ceiling or wall to prevent it from falling over. Tree lights should not be plugged in when they are not being used so that your pet does not get tangled up in them. Pine needles, if swallowed, could puncture the intestines.
Electrical cords: Cases of electrocution increase around the Holidays so keep all electrical cords out of reach from active chewers.
Ribbons, tinsel, garland: Although it seems to have fallen out of vogue as part of today’s holiday décor, if you own a cat, forgo the tinsel. What looks like a shiny toy to your cat can prove deadly if ingested. Tinsel does not pose a poisoning risk but can cause severe damage to a cat’s intestinal tract if swallowed. Ultimately, cats run the risk of severe injury to, or rupture of their intestines and treatment involves expensive abdominal surgery. The same goes for any long piece of material that a cat would deem fun to play with!
Ornaments, light bulbs: Keep your pet in mind when choosing decorations, especially for the tree. Keep them at a height where Sylvester or Rover can’t reach them and avoid ones with tiny edible pieces if possible. Glass ornaments and light bulbs pose a risk of cutting the mouth, stomach and/or intestines if ingested. Many decorations could result in an intestinal obstruction which requires surgical intervention.
Poinsettias: Despite what most people think, Poinsettias are only mildly toxic. They are a stomach irritant and usually an animal will develop self-limited vomiting and maybe diarrhea. Better to be safe than sorry though, so keep all plants up away from where pets can reach them.
Mistletoe, Holly: Both are potentially toxic to animals. They tend to cause vomiting and diarrhea, but may also induce fatal heart arrhythmias.
Lilies: Asiatic, Tiger, Easter, Day, and Stargazer lilies are all extremely toxic to cats. Just a few nibbles on a leaf or petal can cause acute kidney failure. Immediate medical intervention is required to reverse the damage and many cats die despite treatment. If you have a cat in the house and you receive a bouquet that contains lilies, it would be best to pass them along to a cat-free home. A good thing to remember: if it has a bulb, it is probably toxic.
Alcohol: Because alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, it affects pets quickly. Ingestion of alcohol can cause dangerous drops in blood sugar, blood pressure and body temperature. Intoxicated animals can experience seizures and respiratory failure. Additionally, foods such as desserts containing alcohol and unbaked dough that contains yeast should be kept away from pets as they may result in alcohol toxicity, vomiting, disorientation and stomach bloat. Plus dogs don’t understand the affects of alcohol and can become panicked.
Grapes, Raisin, Currents (including fruit cakes!): So next time your Aunt Martha sends you a fruit cake and the dog is the only one in the house who is likely to eat it, re-gift it instead. Raisins and grapes are highly toxic to many dogs. So if yours gets a boxful, or a chunk of raisin-studded fruitcake, or any like product with raisins (or even a bowl of grapes), get to a veterinarian fast. Rapid intervention is crucial. Symptoms include vomiting, nausea, decreased appetite, lethargy, abdominal pain, and in later stages increased thirst and urination.
Macadamia Nuts: Macadamia nuts cause a temporary paralysis that resolves itself in 24-72 hours. However, without knowledge of Rover having eaten them, an incorrect diagnosis could easily be made and Rover potentially euthanized. Macadamia nuts are also commonly covered in chocolate so treatment for chocolate toxicity may also be warranted.
Snow Globes: Some snow globes contain antifreeze (ethylene glycol.) As little as one teaspoon of antifreeze when ingested by a cat or a tablespoon or two for a dog (depending on their size), can be fatal. Signs of early poisoning include acting drunk or uncoordinated, excessive thirst, and lethargy. While signs may seem to improve after eight to twelve hours, internal damage is actually worsening, and crystals develop in the kidneys resulting in acute kidney failure. Immediate treatment with an antidote is vital.
Potpourri and Candles: Filling your house with the smell of nutmeg or pine for the holidays may seem inviting—but if you’re partial to heating your scented oils in a simmer pot, know that they can cause serious harm to your cat; even a few licks can result in severe chemical burns in the mouth, fever, difficulty breathing, and tremors. Keep candles out of the reach of curious noses and wagging tails. Sometimes pets don’t realize something is hot until they get burned.
And last but not least, please do not give pets as a present this holiday season. The decision to adopt a pet should not be based on an impulse purchase. Pets are a lifelong commitment and many people cannot cope with their care and training. It is also unrealistic for adults to expect children to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog or cat before the child is old enough to understand the obligations a pet places on his or her life. Humane societies throughout North America are continually flooded with unwanted animals, especially so at Christmas time and they are barely able to financially cope with the care of those animals. The result is the euthanasia of millions of dogs and cats every year; ~ 4 million this year in the U.S. alone!
During the Holiday Season, if your pet behaves strangely, begins to vomit or have diarrhea, or is in pain, don’t delay in calling your veterinarian’s office. Often early intervention can prevent more serious complications. Remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So play it safe this holiday and stick to pet food and safe holiday decorations.
Happy Holidays from the veterinarians and staff at Hillcrest Animal Hospital.
If your pet should happen to ingest or come in contact with something potentially toxic out of clinic hours you can contact either of these numbers for further assistance:
Pet Poison Helpline – 1-800-213-6680 ($35 USD consult fee)
ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center – 1-888-426-4435 ($64 USD consult fee)