Home > Blog > November 2016 > A Definitive Guide to Holiday Pet Safety

A Definitive Guide to Holiday Pet Safety

Posted: November 21, 2016 by Lori VanValkenburg

The holidays are a fun time for family and friends to get together and appreciate good food and decorations. Because we consider our pets family, it’s not uncommon to want to include them in the fun.

However, some common holiday foods, decorations and plants may be hazardous to their health. Here’s a comprehensive guide on what to watch out for over the holidays to keep your furry best friends safe.

Two dogs sitting in front of a Christmas tree.
The Christmas Tree
Putting up a Christmas tree is a holiday tradition for most families but can also be stressful for owners of very curious pets. If you do decorate a tree, be sure that your pet does not ingest needles, cones, branches, or bark. Although they may contain small amounts of fertilizer and essential oils, they are unlikely to cause significant toxicity. 

However, trees can cause mild to moderate gastrointestinal irritation (potentially leading to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances) or, emergency situations such as gastrointestinal perforation or obstruction. Consuming components of artificial trees can also cause perforation or obstruction in pets.

Ribbons and bows, shiny ornaments, tinsel, and other trimmings can mesmerize a pet, especially cats. Ingesting these items can result in a life-threatening emergency such as choking, gastrointestinal perforation, or obstruction. Glass from broken ornaments can also cause injury to your pet’s paws, muzzle, and mouth. Also be careful of tinsel or angel hair decorations. They may cause irritation to eyes and skin orintestinal obstruction.

Christmas Tree Water
Some people put additives in their Christmas tree water in an attempt to keep it from drying out, such as aspirin. If you have pets in the home, it’s not recommended. Aspirin can cause adverse effects in dogs and cats if they drink it. Clinical signs of aspirin overdoses in cats include nausea, vomiting, respiratory depression, seizures, and possibly coma. Signs are similar in dogs and may be mild to moderate in severity.

Cords and Batteries
Also take precautions to ensure that your pet does not have access to electrical cords or batteries. Chewing on an electrical cord can cause electrocution and serious burns, while chewing on batteries can cause chemical burns to the mouth, esophagus, and intestinal tract or obstruction if they are consumed.

A roasted turkey sitting in a pan.
The Holiday Feast
During the holiday feast, it is especially difficult to resist the pleas for table scraps from a salivating dog or cat. It’s important to understand the repercussions that can result from giving into these urges.

Fatty meats, gravies, butter, creams, and other high-fat foods can cause pancreatitis in our companion animals—a painful and potentially life-threatening emergency. This can be prevented by not feeding your pet and by discouraging your them from begging during the feast. Make sure to let guests know about the “no table scraps” rule.

Additionally, bones can cause choking or splinter in the intestinal tract, resulting in gastrointestinal perforation or obstruction.

Here are some foods to avoid giving your animals at the holidays:
  • Turkey, chicken and other small animal bones
  • Other cooked meat bones
  • Raw or uncooked meat
  • Fatty meats
  • Stuffing
  • Bread dough or cake batter
  • Mushrooms
  • Walnuts or macadamia nuts
  • Onions or garlic
If you want to give your pet a treat while the rest of the family feasts, give them pet-designated foods, such as bones, chews, cat treats and other items you can purchase at your local pet store. That way they don’t feel left out!

Holiday Goodies (Beware of Chocolate!)
There are so many yummy treats to tempt us during the holiday season including candy, cookies, pastries, cakes, and more, but we must think twice before sharing them with our furry friends.

The most toxic components of these goodies are chocolate and xylitol. Chocolate contains methylxanthines: theobromide and caffeine. Small amounts of these substances can cause intestinal upset, while more significant amounts can cause a range of problems such as seizures, toxicosis, and possibly even death.

Keep in mind that dark chocolate and baking chocolate have higher concentrations of theobromide than milk chocolate or white chocolate, and that the lethal dose of chocolate is much lower for smaller dogs than it is for larger dogs. 

For example, a 22-pound dog could be poisoned by consuming 2.25 ounces of baking chocolate or 20 ounces of milk chocolate while a dog weighing 50 pounds would need to consume twice as much to receive a toxic dose.

Xylitol is an artificial sweetener that can be found in commercially available sugar-free chewing gum and candy. Additionally, it is available on the baking aisle in most grocery stores for use in sugar-free home-baked goods. Just a small amount of xylitol can induce hypoglycemia in cats and dogs. Signs of xylitol poisoning include weakness, incoordination, seizures or collapsing. They typically develop within 30 to 60 minutes and may last for 12 to 24 hours.

Keep Grapes and Raisins Away from Dogs
Raisins and grapes are also dangerous to dogs. Beware of baked goods containing raisins. It has been estimated that 0.16 to 0.7 ounces of raisins per kilogram of body weight is potentially fatal to dogs, while four to five grapes can be toxic to an 18-pound dog. Signs of raisin/grape toxicity include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, painful abdomen, and acute renal failure. It should be noted that there have not been any clear, confirmed cases of raisin/grape toxicity in cats.

A red poinsetta plant.
Holiday Plants
Some popular holiday plants may be risky for animals that ingest them. They include:
  • Amaryllis
  • Christmas cactus
  • Mistletoe
  • English holly
  • Rosemary
  • Poinsettias
Dogs and cats may be tempted to investigate them because they only appear in the house seasonally. Cats tend to nibble on a few of the leaves and flowers while dogs may devour the whole plant, roots and all.

Signs of Plant Poisoning
  • Amaryllis: Mild to moderate toxicity, potentially requiring veterinary treatment. Vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and hypersalivation to restlessness, tremors, and difficulty breathing. If large amounts of the bulbs are ingested, low blood pressure, sedation, or seizures may result.
  • Christmas cactus: Ingestion in dogs and cats are mild and result from gastrointestinal irritation from ingesting the leaves of the plant. Clinical signs may include diarrhea and vomiting (with or without blood), depression, and loss of appetite. In most cases, signs subside on their own within a few hours after ingestion.
  • Mistletoe: Keep mistletoe out of your pet’s reach to avoid vomiting, diarrhea, depression, and hypotension in your pet. Toxicity is usually mild and self-limiting; however, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can result from continued vomiting and diarrhea.
  • English (Christmas) holly: This can cause mild to moderate stomach upset and most cases of ingestion can be managed at home. However, when large amounts of the leaves are consumed, there is danger of a life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction forming, which generally requires surgical intervention.
  • Rosemary: It’s a delicious culinary herb that is often used during the holiday season to create aromatic wreaths and other holiday decorations. But, pets can become very ill if they ingest rosemary. Signs include nausea, oral ulcerations, vomiting, diarrhea, low blood pressure and weakness, depression, seizures, and pale mucous membranes.
  • Poinsettias: This plant has a bad reputation as being highly toxic to pets. However, most poinsettia exposure signs are mild, such as contact irritation, hypersalivation and vomiting. Most cases are self-limiting and do not require medical intervention.
Who to Call in Case of Emergency
If you suspect that your pet may have consumed any of these toxins, you should immediately call your veterinarian and/or SPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) hotline at 888-426-4435. The number is manned by poison control experts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is better to get advice from a veterinary professional as soon as you suspect something rather than to wait and see. It could save your pet’s life!

Lori VanValkenburg headshot.Lori VanValkenburg, MAEd, BAS-VT, LVT, is the Director of the Veterinary Technician and Assistant programs at Pima Medical Institute's Houston campus. She is a licensed veterinary technologist with a master’s degree in education, a bachelor of applied science degree in veterinary technology, and an associate of applied science degree in veterinary technology. She is a contributing writer for the Veterinary Technician National Exam, on the Veterinary Paraprofessional Committee of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, a programmatic specialist for the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, a former board of directors member of the American Association of Veterinary Technician Educators, and former president of the Texas Association of Registered Veterinary Technicians.
Peterson, M. and Talcott, P. (2006). Small Animal Toxicology (2nd Ed.). Saunders Elsevier. St. Louis, MO.

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