Holiday Pet Safety

black cat with lights
Fromage says, "Lights? What lights? I don't know how they got that way."

by Karen  Sable, Guest Columnist

The holidays are a special time of the year, filled with friends and family, parties and food, presents and decorations. The holiday season is also, unfortunately, one of the busiest times for emergency veterinary hospitals, since all of the festivities expose our furry family members to a multitude of dangers that can result in illness and injury.

As a loving pet parent, we naturally want to share the joy of the holidays with our pets. I don’t mind admitting that each of my six cats has a stocking hanging above the fireplace, and I know that “Santa Claws” will be bringing them presents since they all have been very good this year. (With the possible exception of Tasha, who decided to squeeze into a small crawlspace between my basement and first floor, forcing me to miss an event I was to attend while I completely dismantled the drop ceiling to get to her.)

To make sure that the holidays are a happy time for you and your pet, not a time for a trip to the animal hospital, it’s important to be aware of the seasonal dangers, and to take precautions to avoid exposing your pet to these potential hazards:

two tortoiseshell cats eating cheesecake filling
Two Naughty Torties Eating Cheesecake Filling

Food Related Items

  • Many of the yummy foods we enjoy during the holidays can cause problems for our pets. Rich, fatty foods can cause upset stomachs and even lead to pancreatitisChocolate, coffee, and tea contain components called xanthines which can damage dogs’ and cats’ nervous system and urinary system, and also over-stimulate their heart muscle. Dark chocolate and baking chocolate are the worst, but to be safe, any chocolate, fudge, or other candy should be kept out of reach of your pet. Many people add raisins and nuts to their holiday cakes and cookies, but raisins and grapes can cause kidney damage, and Macadamia nuts can be toxic, affecting both the digestive and nervous systems. The artificial sweetener Xylitol, used in many “sugar free” baked goods, as well as in candy, gum, and even breath mints, can also be toxic. Uncooked meat, poultry, or fish can be a source of danger, as it may contain bacteria, such as E.coli, or even parasites. Even uncooked yeast dough, if eaten by a dog or cat, can cause serious problems. As it expands, it produces gas, which can not only cause considerable pain, but can even lead to a rupture of the stomach or intestines.
  • Don’t forget about bones from poultry, meat, or fish. Not only can they be a choking danger, but they can also splinter into jagged pieces and cause lacerations in the mouth, throat, and intestines. Dogs and cats have a great sense of smell, so even food/meat juices on aluminum foil or plastic wrap left on countertops can be very tempting, and can cause choking or an intestinal blockage.  The same goes for things like the strings used to wrap roasts.
  • Be sure not to leave food laying out where your pet can get to it, and make sure your garbage cans are also secure. “Dumpster diving” can be hazardous to your pet, as the garbage contains all kinds of hazards, from plastic wrap and bags, cooked and uncooked food trimmings, bones, 6-pack beverage holders, ribbons, tinsel, etc.
  • If you are serving any alcoholic beverages during the holidays, you also need to be careful to keep them away from your pet. Alcohol can cause serious intoxication, and can be fatal with just a small amount. Dogs and cats can be tempted by the sweet taste of drinks, such as eggnog, so make sure they are kept out of your pet’s reach, and that the glasses used for those drinks are not left laying around.
black cat with gift
Giuseppe investigates a gift.

Decorations and trees

  • Many of us fill our homes with beautiful decorations for the holidays, but these can be dangerous to our pets if some common sense precautions are not taken. If you are going to put up a Christmas tree, make sure it is in a stable stand, and secure it to a wall or window with twine or fishing line. I learned first hand a few years ago just how quickly one cat can topple a fully decorated tree I thought was secure in its stand, and I now tie my tree top to my drapery rod with fishing line.
  • Cats in particular are attracted to things like tinsel which, if  ingested, can cause blockages requiring surgery. If your tree is at all accessible to your pet, it would  probably be safest to avoid decorating it with tinsel or angel hair at all, and using a more pet friendly decoration. If you use any food items at all to decorate your tree, some caution is necessary.  Candy canes and gingerbread ornaments can be tempting. Likewise, garlands strung with popcorn or berries can pose choking hazards or cause obstructions if ingested.
  • Be careful with any ornaments you place on the tree. Glass ornaments can be knocked off and broken and cause cuts. Smaller ornaments can pose choking dangers. It’s better to place larger, non-breakable ornaments near the lower part of the tree where curious paws may reach. And, when hanging ornaments, be careful with the wire hooks. They can also be choking hazards, or can become imbedded in your pet’s mouth or esophagus.
  • Christmas tree needles can also pose a problem. Real tree needles are not only sharp, but can be toxic and cause mouth and stomach irritation, so make sure your pet does not chew on your tree branches, and promptly clean up needles as they fall. You also should be careful with any tree preservatives you may use. Many tree preservatives are sugar-based, so are tempting to pets. Not only can the chemicals in the tree preservative be toxic, but since the water remains in the stand for so long, it can harbor bacteria.  Some people simply drop a few aspirin in their tree water as a preservative, and we all know that aspirin can be toxic to pets.  The safest thing is to place some sort of covering over your tree stand to prevent your pet from being able to drink from it.
  • And don’t forget the electrical cords for the tree lights or other decorative lights around your home. Be sure to take precautions so that your pet doesn’t chew them. One suggestion is to spray the cords with a product like bitter apple to make them less attractive to curious pets.
  • You should also use some precautions with gift wrapping. Ribbon and yarn can be very tempting to cats especially, so don’t leave it laying around. If you place wrapped gifts under the tree, you may want to consider placing “scat mats’ around the tree to deter your pet from playing with them.
cat in Santa suit
Crystal plays Santa.

Holiday Plants

It turns out that poinsettas are not the deadly poisonous plant we once thought they were. However, its sap is still quite irritating, and can cause blistering in your pet’s mouth and gastrointestinal irritation if ingested, so some precaution is still in order if you have them around your home. Holly leaves and berries are actually more dangerous, and can be potentially fatal. Mistletoe can also cause upset stomachs, and can even lead to heart problems if ingested.  Even hibiscus can cause upset stomachs and diarrhea. To be safe, any plants placed in your home should be placed out of reach of your pet.

Presents

We also need to exercise caution with the gifts we give each other, as they can pose dangers to our pets. Aftershave and perfume are often popular gifts, but they contain alcohol, and may also contain oils which can be toxic to pets. Be sure to keep any such gifts tightly closed and out of reach of paws. Many gifts given and received these days run on batteries, from toys, to cell phones, to laptops and electronics, to anything with a remote control. The acid inside even a tiny battery which is used to prolong its life is corrosive. If chewed it can cause burns to your pet’s mouth, throat, and stomach. Even if it is swallowed whole, not only is it a choking hazard, but as it is digested the acid will leak out and cause serious potentially life-threatening problems. Be careful not to leave batteries laying around, and also take care that your pet does not chew anything containing batteries.  Even the packaging some gifts come in can be a potential danger.  The styrofoam peanuts or wire twist ties used to secure many items pose hazards for choking and intestinal blockage, and if ingested can land your pet in surgery.

black cat with catnip toy
Giuseppe sings the joys of catnip.

Potpourri

Believe it or not, potpourri is one of the more common causes of visits to pet ERs during the holidays. Many of us love to fill our homes with the scent of pine, or ginger bread, or pumpkin pie during the holidays. But that same fragrance that is so pleasant to us is also enticing to our pets. Both the liquid and the dry form of potpourri contain oils that can be toxic to our pets if ingested, and the dry form, like that that may be placed in bowls and set on tables, can be a choking hazard.  If using potpourri, be careful to keep it out of reach of pets.

The above information is certainly not intended as an all-inclusive list of the dangers that exist for our pets during the holidays. These are just some of the more common things that we all need to be aware of as we enjoy the holidays with our pets. With just some simple, common sense precautions, we can make sure that the holidays are filled with joy and happiness , and that a trip to the vet hospital is not among our holiday activities.

On behalf of myself and my furry family (Colby, Maddie, Jasper, Jasmine, Tasha, and Keegan), I wish you and yours the merriest of holiday seasons, and a happy, and safe, new year.

karen and dog
Karen with a friend's dog, Sequoia

About Karen Sable
Karen Sable, owner of Pet Emergency Training, LLC, completed the Pet Tech Instructor program in March, 2011 and teaches pet first aid classes in the Pittsburgh area. Karen is a trained responder with several national animal response/rescue teams, including American Humane’s Red Star Animal Emergency Services Team, United Animal Nations’ Emergency Animal Rescue Service, and Noah’s Wish Disaster Response Team. She is also a member of the PA/Allegheny County Animal Response Team, and a volunteer animal rescue transporter.

In addition to having a Veterinary Assistant diploma, Karen’s training certifications include Emergency Animal Sheltering, Large Animal Rescue, Animals in Disaster, Livestock in Disaster, Hazardous Materials, Incident Command and National Incident Management. As a former healthcare Human Resources Director, Karen now devotes her extensive training experience, and love of animals, to teaching pet care professionals and fellow pet parents the skills and knowledge that can save their pets and improve the quality of their pets’ lives. Visit her website at Pet Emergency Training, LLC.

An article by Karen on a timely pet first aid, wellness or disaster rescue topic will appear on The Creative Cat on the first Friday of every month.

November 2011: Senior Pets Make Great Friends!

October 2011: Help Your Pets to Stay Well

October 2011: The Snout-to-Tail Wellness Assessment

September 2011: Are Your Pets Prepared For An Emergency ?

Read more about Karen in The Creative Cat Welcomes Guest Columnist Karen Sable.

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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, The Creative Cat offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats. From catchy and creative headlines to factual articles and fictional stories, The Creative Cat provides constant entertainment and important information to people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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