Holiday Season Precautions for Pets

by Bruce W. Little, DVM



As the popular song states in its first verse, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere I go,” I noticed in the stores as I was running errands this weekend that the Holiday Season must be just around the corner. The number of homes and businesses in our neighborhood that are decorated with lights and other symbols of the Season are evident on an increasing basis. In fact, I have seen positive change in many people’s attitudes as the month of December advances day-by-day. The Holiday Season is my favorite time of year, even in a world that seems to have lost its way regarding moral and ethical considerations. Hopefully, we as a nation and the entire world, can pause and reflect on the real purpose of the Season and find once again, “Peace on Earth!”

The Holiday Season causes disruption in the daily routine of the entire household including the family pets. People are busy shopping, making travel plans, planning menus and entertainment for guests, and many other activities related to the season. Children are home from school for an extended period, guests from out of town arrive and the normal home surroundings are changed to a festive mood with decorations, music, plants, fragrances and people. This unusual activity has an effect on the pets in the household, as many times they are relegated to a role with less personal contact and attention to which they are normally accustomed. Household guests can be stressful to pets during the Holiday Season. This is especially true if the guests have a pet of their own that they bring along for the duration of the stay. The pets who live there all year feel like their territory is being infringed upon. And in many cases, this is true.

The anxiety created in pets when house guests arrive can cause digestive upset in both dogs and cats leading to vomiting and diarrhea. It is a good idea in most cases to provide a quiet, closed off room for the pets with a television or stereo playing to calm their anxiety and let them relax. In order to keep them from exhibiting unwanted behaviors such as barking or chewing on the furniture leave them with a long-lasting, treat-dispensing toy to occupy their minds. Check on them periodically to ensure they cannot escape through a door left open unintentionally or by chewing through the wall. Make sure all pets have a permanent microchip in place and are registered on one of the microchip company data bases that are available, so in case they do escape and become lost, they can be picked up and a very welcome call will be placed to your telephone. Your local veterinarian can advise you on microchips and the data base registration process. It is also wise to place a collar containing your contact information on the pet so neighbors and passersby can return the pet if it does escape the chaos of the house at this time of year.

A decorated Christmas tree provides ample opportunities for a dog or cat to get into trouble during the Holiday Season. Be sure the tree is supported properly so the pets, should they decide to investigate by pulling on a decoration or limb, do not pull the tree over. If using a live-cut Christmas tree that has been placed in a stand that contains water and fertilizer or preservatives, be sure to place a cover over the base so the pets cannot drink the water. Decorations and party favors can be especially dangerous for dogs and cats. Shards of glass from tree decorations can be swallowed and cause intestinal hemorrhaging and blockage. Cats are especially attracted to tinsel used to decorate the tree and can cause stomach or intestinal blockage if eaten in sufficient amounts. Packaging materials such as Styrofoam, string, ribbon and foil wrapping paper can be eaten, especially if it has a taste or smell of the food contained inside causing intestinal blockage that many times ends up with surgery as the last resort to remove it. Always keep lighted candles out of reach so the pets cannot knock them over or get burned, and electric cords taped to the floor so the pets cannot chew on them. Those small batteries that sometimes come with mechanical toys can cause burns if chewed on by pets. Finally, protect the pets from the fireplace by placing a screen in front of the flames.

Many plants that are found inside the house during the Holiday Season can be toxic to pets. For instance, many types of lilies are highly toxic to cats. Licking themselves after skin contact while around certain lilies can be enough exposure to cause kidney problems in cats. Other plants that are common in our homes during the Holiday Season that can be toxic to pets are Christmas cactus, holly and mistletoe. Mistletoe if eaten in enough quantity can cause low blood pressure and heart problems.

While preparing meals during these hectic Holiday Season days, be sure to take the pets into consideration. It is impossible to eliminate the wonderful smells that emanate from the kitchen during these festive times. Precautions must be taken to protect the pets that make up an important part of the family during these Holiday events. Sometimes pets, especially dogs, become overzealous in eating the family’s food and drink, and that can be detrimental to their health. Fat trimmings, skin and bones from the meat should be kept far out of reach of the family pets. Fat, whether cooked or raw, can cause pancreatitis while bone splinters can get lodged in your pet’s mouth, throat or intestines causing a digestive tract blockage. Poultry bones are brittle and can be especially dangerous or even fatal to animals. Strings used to hold meat together during the cooking process will contain the odors of the meat, but can have a critical effect on the digestive health of your pet. If swallowed, these string products can cause blockage in the digestive tract and many times can only be relieved with surgical intervention. Caffeine in large quantities can make dogs disorientated and sometimes cause seizure-like symptoms.

Materials such as xylitol that is used as an artificial sweetener in baked goods, chewing gum and other products is highly toxic to dogs and cats. Chocolate contains theobromine, a chemical that can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and in higher doses can cause heart beat abnormalities, tremors, and possibly seizures. The darker the chocolate the more toxic the contents may be. Baker’s chocolate is ten times more toxic to dogs than lighter chocolates found in most candies. It is never good to allow dogs or cats to access marijuana products, either raw or in baked foods. With the recent legalization of medical marijuana in many states and recreational marijuana in four states, the incidence of marijuana toxicity has increased significantly in those localities. Baked products that contain raisins, currants and grapes even in small doses, can result in kidney failure in dogs. Small quantities of alcohol consumed by pets can cause vomiting, incoordination, confusion and seizures in pets if given in enough quantity. Open purses and suitcases of guests can be dangerous if they contain certain human medications, wrapped gifts or foods that could be toxic to dogs and cats. Remember, pets do not always have the same reaction to certain medications as humans. You must protect against your pet gaining access to garbage in the kitchen or when turned outside where they can raid the garbage cans that may contain the scraps and leftovers of the family meal. Any garbage can contain toxic bacteria such as Salmonella or coliform bacteria that can cause digestive distress, vomiting and diarrhea.

One of the materials most hazardous to pets in the wintertime Holiday Season is new or used antifreeze that is used to keep the radiator of cars from freezing and also, sometimes placed on sidewalks and driveways to melt snow and ice. Imported snow globes may contain antifreeze and can be extremely dangerous to pets should they ingest even a small amount of it. Antifreeze products have a sweet odor and taste good to dogs, so they will drink it causing severe damage to their kidneys creating an immediate emergency. Antifreeze is usually stored in garages or basements and that might be the location some people place their dogs during the festivities of the Holiday Season to keep them from being underfoot. Make sure they do not have access to antifreeze in those locations where they normally do not frequent.

It is best to keep these reminders in an accessible location and review them during these hectic times of the Holiday Season. A little bit of caution on the part of the human family members might just be the savior of the four-legged family members. If you think your pet has been exposed to toxic materials at any time, you can contact your local veterinarian. Keep those telephone numbers in a convenient location to find them immediately. Or you can contact the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661. You can also contact the ASPCA Poison Control Unit at 888-426-4435. Both services are open 24 hours per day, and charge a service fee for their information.



Bruce W. Little, DVM