URBANA, Ill. — No one knows better than a veterinarian who staffs the emergency room that the holidays can be fraught with hazards for pets. Luckily, most of the dangers can easily be prevented with some foresight and good advice.
Dr. Yanshan Er, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital who is pursuing specialization in emergency and critical care, shares her top tips for keeping your pets safe during the holidays.
Holiday Food Dangers
While you are enjoying your holiday feast, you may be tempted to slip your pet some table scraps. It is important to remember many of the things we enjoy are not appropriate for our furry friends.
Chocolate – Chocolate, especially the dark and baking varieties, contains toxins called methylxanthines, which may cause tremors, seizures, and fatal arrhythmias at high doses. Lower doses may cause vomiting and diarrhea. Solution: Keep chocolate away from your pets!
Bones – Leftover bones from that turkey or ham may seem like a treat for your pet, but Dr. Er says that's not true. "Bones pose several dangers: cracked teeth, a blockage in the esophagus, constipation, severe gastrointestinal inflammation or even perforation of the gastrointestinal organs," she says. "There are so many great ways to offer a treat, bones are definitely not worth the risk."
Alcohol and bread dough – Make sure to keep your alcoholic drinks and baking supplies out of reach of your pets. If a pet eats raw yeast-containing dough, the dough will ferment in the stomach, producing ethanol, a form of alcohol. The expansion of dough in the stomach can cause a mechanical obstruction. The ethanol gets absorbed systemically and causes blood acidity and low blood sugar. "These complications can ultimately result in a coma and even death," warns Dr. Er.
Grapes, raisins, and currants – The exact causative toxin is currently unknown, but the fact that consuming grapes, raisins, and currants may result in acute kidney injury in dogs is well documented. Toxicity from these fruits may also lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy. Dr. Er advises pet owners to tell guests these items, especially baked goods like Christmas cake with raisins, are no-nos for pets.
Christmas tree safety – Shiny ornaments are a magnet for curious cats. "Make sure to secure your tree so that it can take bumps or tolerate your pet's zoomies," says Dr. Er. If the tree is not securely anchored, it may fall over easily if a cat starts to climb. Inquisitive pets are also drawn to strings of lights and other electrical wires. Chewing on these wires may result in electrocution, painful burns in the mouth, and fluid in the lungs.
Tinsel and candles – Shiny, reflective tinsel also attracts cats. If swallowed, tinsel, yarn or other stringy objects wreak havoc on a cat's digestive tract. This problem, called a "linear foreign body," must be treated with emergency surgery. Candles also fall into the "shiny danger" category. Pets aren't aware of the danger fire poses, so never allow pets to remain unsupervised in a room with lit candles.
Poinsettias, mistletoe, and lilies – If you own a pet that eats anything and everything, it is important to know that poinsettias and mistletoe can result in an upset stomach for your pet. In very rare cases, mistletoe can also affect the heart. While not typically a winter holiday decoration, lilies are very toxic to cats, and result in acute kidney injury. "All parts of the lily plant are toxic, so remember to keep them out of reach of your kitties," says Dr. Er.
Managing Holiday Stresses in Pets
While they’re probably not dreading crowded shopping malls or discussing politics with that one uncle, many pets do find the holidays stressful. Strange people, smells and loud sounds may be overwhelming for your pet. Make sure it has a safe, quiet, and escape-proof room to provide a safe retreat when needed.
Don’t forget that Christmas poppers and fireworks can be terrifying for pets with noise aversion. Dr. Er suggests talking to your veterinarian about anxiety medication and sedatives if your pet might benefit from those during high-anxiety situations.
Crystal Munguia is a DVM candidate at the University of Illinois.