As we loom toward Christmas, here are a few cautions where your pets are concerned with gifts and foods and activities during the holidays. Thanskgiving, Easter and Passover have the same advice for foods and house guests and doors opening to the night as well as plants and flowers, but the December holidays—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice—all have decorations and traditions that we want to preserve but which can be very dangerous to our pets.
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We bring evergreens into our homes and light candles and fireplaces to chase away the darkness of midwinter and celebrate the return of the light, and we decorate with things that bring light and color into our homes. Each December festival has its own tradition with these symbolic items and it’s wise to be aware of what dangers they may pose to our pets.
Things that come in from the outdoors perk their instincts to investigate all the scents that come in with them, and then their natural curiosity urges them to investigate further with touch and taste, the way animals always investigate their environment. We don’t need to rid our homes of everything, but knowledge of both the dangers our traditions may pose and our pets’ inclination to enjoy our festivities on their own terms can help to keep them safe and healthy.
How did our pets survive before we knew all these cautions about which foods and plants were truly toxic and exactly what a length of curling ribbon could do to their intestines? At one time we thought nibbling just a bit of poinsettia leaf would kill our cats and dogs, but we’ve since learned that, unless your pet eats a lot of poinsettia—a whole lot, probably more than they would or could ever eat—it will only cause some mild gastric upset. That’s not something you want under any circumstances, but also not a reason to rush your pet to the emergency hospital after one incident. Many plants associated with the December holidays are more toxic than poinsettias, but they too have their tolerable levels. Aside from plants in the lily family which may be in a cut bouquet, most risks take a large quantity to do damage, but because you are preoccupied and probably not watching what your pet is getting into, it’s best not to let them get into it at all.
But surely they’d stay away from fire? Never presume they think like humans do. Here are a few things specific to these holidays to keep your pets away from, whichever holiday you happen to be celebrating.
Real Christmas trees and decorations of fresh evergreens
It’s a joke right? Keep pets away from the tree—the greatest form of environmental enrichment for just about any species of pets? Well, yes, starting with the tree itself, and the cautions also extend to garlands, swags, wreaths and other items made from pine and other evergreens, it really is worth the trouble to at least try to keep your pets away from the tree.
Pine oil is toxic to both cats and dogs, moreso to cats with a diminished ability to metabolize the oil, and there’s a tree right there with oil ready to ooze out of the cut bottom and any broken or bruised branches when it comes into the warm house, or a tantalizing garland swagged over the mantel, a challenge to drag down and subdue on the floor.
Needles and branches
Eating enough needles and branches can provide a toxic dose of pine oil, and the plant parts are really not digestible. Needles of many species of evergreens can be very sharp and scratch or puncture delicate mucous membranes.
Juniper and yew
Juniper and yew are popular to add to wreaths and displays, and while juniper berries are used in traditional medicine as a diuretic and cardiac medicine, it’s on the VetInfo list of 10 Most Toxic Plants for Cats and larger quantities as well as the plant itself, can cause damage. Yew, both the plant and the berries, is listed as highly toxic to all species of animals by the Pet Poison Helpline for the presence of taxines which can cause effects from drooling and vomiting to serious cardiac and neurological issues.
Preservatives and sprays
Trees and evergreen decorations may also have been sprayed with a preservative to keep the tree fresh while shipping and from drying out and dropping needles right away in your home, and sometimes with a nutrient spray to make sure the needles are a nice bright green when the trees are in the lot for sale. When trees are set up in the home a preservative is often added to the water to keep them looking fresh and, for safety’s sake, keep the needles from drying out and dropping. This is another reason not to let pets even taste the branches, nor should they drink the water in the tree stand because whatever is in the tree is in the water along with a preservative to keep it fresh.
Other natural decorations
Probably swatting around a dried pine cone is okay, but typical holiday plants like, oh by gosh by golly European mistletoe (not American) and holly, are toxic even to humans, and ivy is toxic to pets, but again, each of them to varying degrees and in varying quantities, but still nothing to take lightly. European mistletoe is far more toxic than American mistletoe and this is one good example of when it’s good to actually identify the plants you have and not guess.
If you really want to go natural with your decorations, install them where your pets can’t get to them if that’s possible. Pets are persistent, especially with eating plants, and even if they aren’t toxic in small quantities you don’t really want your pet to dine on your decorations all through the holiday season, vomiting each day, because that in itself can end up causing some serious problems.
Candles and fireplaces
Nearly all the December holidays include fire of some sort, and entrancing dancing candle flames to light the darkest time of year. Yes we want the menorah where we can all watch the candles burn each night, or the advent wreath counting off the weeks, or pine-scented candles or a glowing fireplace.
Open flames are huge dangers for not only curious paws and noses but also floofy tails and long whiskers which can quickly catch the flame and spread through fur. That dancing little flame is just as enticing as the red dot for kitties who try to swat and bite it. Dogs can unknowingly swipe their tails through a lot of things and never know it. If you have candles burning, put a cover around them so paws and tails can’t sweep through them and place them as far out of reach as you can and never leave them burning unattended, and put a grate or cover in front of the fireplace so you can all enjoy the warmth and glow together.
Pot pourri and scent diffusers
Whether it’s the dried stuff in a dish or the oil in a diffuser of any sort they pose dangers to pets. The fumes themselves can be irritating, especially from oil diffusers, and can build up in small areas more than you might imagine. Wax warmers and plug-in diffusers of various sorts can easily spill if they aren’t in a protected area and not only burn pets with both the heated substance and chemicals but also give an unexpected dose of oils. Essentail oils are not toxic to dogs in therapeutic doses, but cats are another matter entirely, unable to metabolize many of the compounds. And the dry stuff in a dish might just make a tasty snack even if you’d never think it appetizing to your pets at all. Keep them all out of reach of your pets and be sure to use with adequate ventilation.
Decorations and packaging
On any given day, anything can become a toy. Or food. Sadly, on a morning just before Christmas, I read a story about a young dog who ate, right off the tree, one of the salt dough ornaments made by her family and within hours developed seizures and neurological symptoms and had to be euthanized. Ironically, the ornament had a purple paw, made because they loved Lexi so much. I hadn’t realized salt dough could be so toxic, but it’s something to remember going forward.
Under the pressure of stress, any seemingly inedible and unappetizing object can become a toy and/or a food item. String-like objects like tinsel and garlands, ribbon scraps from your gift wrapping or yarn from craft projects, but they can be deadly if they wrap around her tongue or bunch up in the stomach or intestines, often requiring surgery. Even the polyester batting you’ve carefully arranged under the tree to mimic snow, and it’s obvious what a big ball of this indigestible substance in the stomach would do, likely beginning with a trip to the emergency clinic.
The abundance of new extension cords to accommodate lights on the tree and otherwise can likewise be a temptation to a bored cat lacking human attention or happy with the new additions to his environment. The tree itself, apparently meant to be climbed, chewed and knocked over after it’s decorated, can become a team effort, and glass decorations can end up in dangerous shards all over your floor.
And imported snow globes contain ethylene glycol, which is antifreeze, known to be deadly. They may seem unbreakable but if you have a cat who likes to knock things on the floor, or if it springs a leak, a teaspoon of the contents can be deadly to a cat within hours, a tablespoon or more to dogs and most other pets.
While you are taking care of a million other things, it’s difficult to keep track of everything, but keep an eye on your pet’s interactions with:
- spray snow
- cotton or polyester batting
- packing peanuts
- plastic bags
- plastic packaging
- glass ornaments
- ornament hooks
- extension cords
Observe their behavior as you decorate the tree and elsewhere in the house. If they are irresistibly drawn to something don’t assume you can dissuade their interest, especially when you’re away. If they persist, just take the thing away.
As always, think like your pets, not like a human, to keep them safe
Before covering the basic warnings, here are a few key points to remember:
1. Animals are not little people. Animals are simply a fraction of our size, so the effect of anything on them will be multiplied in their smaller bodies which don’t metabolize things the same as we do. Consider chocolate and raisins, both of which can be toxic in dogs and cats in smaller amounts than we would eat for fun. Consider aspirin, which a cat’s small body doesn’t metabolize quickly enough to avoid a possible overdose and can be fatal, but can safely be used in reasonable dosages in a dog as a pain reliever.
2. Animals don’t make reasoned decisions in the same way we do. They make decisions based on their own sensibilities as cats and dogs, and because we presume they can’t read or understand warnings about dangers to themselves, these decisions are based on curiosity and adventure and are not always in their own best interest.
3. Don’t ever think your cat or dog “wouldn’t eat that”. They would. Plan on it. Cats are a little more discerning than dogs in choosing what to eat, and even with that, in all the years I’ve had cats they’ve eaten, or attempted to eat, just about anything they could chew and swallow, including such foods as hot peppers, cookies and raw green beans—who would think?!
4. Don’t think your cat or dog “can’t get to it”. They can. They have nothing better to do than to stalk and kill your cheese plate, or the box with the curling ribbon. Confine them if they won’t stay out of something, or get it out of your house.
5. And a special one for the holiday season: Your change in routine will change your pet. Don’t presume you can predict what they will do. Animals are creatures of habit, but this is the one time of the year we intentionally break habits including daily schedules, entertaining guests, and arranging and decorating our space. Our pets may run the spectrum from happily helping to totally freaking out, but the change in plans will have an effect on them and they may not behave in their usual manner, either, making them much less predictable than we are accustomed to.
They can only get into what we leave available for them, so keep them in mind as you prepare. I have links to articles for more information about toxic plants, foods and other dangers at the end of this post.
Resources in this article
Thanksgiving Goodies, and baddies, my article which outlines foods, behavior, visitors and other things to be aware of on any holiday
Leave the Lilies Outside, my article which describes which plants and cut flowers are harmful or toxic
Winter Holiday Pet Poison Tips Pet Poison Helpline
Holiday Pet Poisoning Myths Debunked! Pet Poison Helpline
10 Most Toxic Plants for Cats VetInfo.com
Deck the Halls with Holiday Plants – But Are They Toxic? Pet Poison Helpline
Yew Pet Poison Helpline
Keeping Pets Safe This Holiday Season Pet Poison Helpline
For more information on plants toxic to cats and potentially toxic foods:
ASPCA’s Holiday Safety Tips
Keep the link to the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center for reference at the holidays and beyond.
Make sure your kitty has a great holiday!
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