The holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can pose challenges for pets and owners. After months of coordinating time with family, arranging travel, planning gatherings, and trying to find the perfect gifts to share, the last thing on anyone’s mind is potential danger to beloved pets.
This article will outline hidden hazards for pet owners to consider so that you and your pets can have a very merry holiday season. It is not meant to be a substitute for visiting your regular veterinarian, so if you have any questions or specific conditions to discuss, give your doc a call to schedule an appointment.
Festive foods: The No. 1 holiday problem for pets
One of the best parts of the holiday season is the delicious food! However, sharing holiday meals with pets is the most common reason for sick visits at the vet clinic this time of year. Many pet owners know that some foods are toxic to pets, and during the holidays our generosity towards hungry pets may lead to unpleasant consequences.
Garlic and onion in any form may cause hemolytic anemia (destruction of red blood cells) in dogs and cats. Alcohol, chocolate and xylitol (a sweetener used in toothpaste and chewing gum) contain compounds that pets cannot metabolize, and ingestion can cause hyperactivity and gastrointestinal (GI) distress or worst-case: seizures, respiratory depression, coma, and death. Bakers beware: if rising bread dough is ingested, the products of yeast fermentation (carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol) can lead to bloating of the stomach, alcohol toxicity, even seizures.
Fatty or spicy foods can upset the GI tract and cause vomiting, diarrhea, or full-blown pancreatitis (usually requiring hospitalization). Bones of any sort should be avoided to prevent GI obstruction or perforation. When in doubt, give pets a pat and not a piece.
Pets and guests
Houseguests, whether being one or receiving some, are part of the holidays. Remember that pets are part of your family year-round and may have special needs that guests, especially very young guests, do not understand. Elderly dogs, scared cats, and young animals still in training can have a hard time adjusting to newcomers.
Set “house rules” for guests and pets. Give a kind reminder that your old dog doesn’t hear well and should not be petted while sleeping, or that visiting toddlers should not play “hide and seek” with your terrified cat. Be mindful of pets that may be escape artists and try to dash out the door with unknowing visitors coming and going. Gentle warnings and setting boundaries early can make visits much less stressful for pets and families.
Guests may also bring new medications into the home that can be toxic to pets if ingested. Medications like anti-depressants, blood pressure medication, sleep aids, and even Tylenol or aspirin can be deadly to animals and should be kept out of sight and reach. Ask your guests to close their bedroom door when not in use to prevent these encounters.
Traveling with pets
If you must travel with your pet, plan ahead for their needs during the trip. Some dogs and cats have car anxiety and may vocalize, pant, shake, or remain agitated for hours. This is stressful for pets and owners, and definitely distracting and unsafe.
For mildly affected pets, consider the use of natural calming aids such as Composure and Zylkene, or pheromone therapies like Feliway and DAP. For extremely anxious individuals, pharmaceutical anti-anxiety medications, sedatives and even mild tranquilizers (e.g. gabapentin, trazodone, acepromazine) may be needed. Your veterinarian can recommend the right option for your pet.
If your pet needs help relaxing during travel or when guests are staying, you should discuss this with your doc at least 2-3 weeks before your trip. Just like humans, animals have individualized tolerances and responses to therapeutics and medications. You have to “practice” using any calming aids at home, prior to the times of stress. This is an essential step to determining the specific dose and effect best suited for your pet.
Pets and décor
At holiday time, we decorate our homes with shiny, glowing, cheery things. We may use candles, wax melts, or potpourri to bring that fantastic holiday smell into our rooms. Unfortunately, some decorations can be dangerous for pets.
Cats are notorious for brushing their tails too close to flames, putting a curious paw into hot wax melts, climbing up Christmas trees (and causing them to fall over), and getting tangled in or chewing on string and tinsel (which, if ingested will cause horrific gastrointestinal disease). Dogs may knock down and step on low-hanging fragile ornaments, chew on or try to eat small decorations (I once found an ornament hook in a puppy’s stomach) or anything that smells nice including wax, candles, and potpourri. Pets may chew on electrical cords or ingest batteries from toys, both of which can cause life-threatening injuries.
Prevent these troubles by thinking ahead: anchor your Christmas tree to the wall to prevent falls, block off the water source from live trees which can grow bacteria and carry traces of fertilizer, avoid using breakable ornaments, and be vigilant of pets and flames, heat sources, and electrical cords. Do not let cats play with string or tinsel and use candles with fake flames over real ones to avoid injuries or accidents. Above all, if your pet cannot be trusted with certain items of décor, eliminate them from use altogether to prevent disaster.
Problematic holiday plants
Seasonal plants are often gifted during the holidays, but some have the capability of poisoning pets. Poinsettias may produce contact irritation and inflammation of the mouth, throat, and stomach. Holly can cause vomiting and diarrhea if ingested but its cousin mistletoe can also cause heart problems. Amaryllis may cause GI upset, abdominal pain and tremors. Lilies of many varieties are extremely toxic to felines; all parts can cause kidney failure and even death if ingested.
In order to be safe and not sorry, opt for artificial or non-toxic plants during the holidays. If you fear that your pet has ingested any of these toxic plants, it is recommended to induce vomiting right away, termed “decontamination.” Grab the hydrogen peroxide and call your veterinarian immediately for instructions if you find yourself in this situation.
New year, same fear
Celebrating the new year means parties, noise-makers, fireworks, and champagne! Remember your pets during this time, and offer pet-safe quiet spaces for them to go during the festivities. Discuss with your veterinarian any known noise phobias. Investigate techniques to modify stressful behavior (see Veterinary Partner website) and consider calming supplements or medications to help prevent fearful or dangerous responses of pets to fireworks, gun shots, and other loud noises they may encounter during the holidays.
Help your pets get through the holidays unscathed. Plan ahead, consider hazards from your pet’s perspective, and talk to your vet. Ensure that no one has reason to fret over a sick pet during times which should be full of fun and family!
In case of exposure to foods, plants, or medications which may harm pets, call your veterinarian, and one of these resources (consultation fees apply):
· ASPCA Animal Poison Control (www.aspca.org ) at (888) 426-4435
· Pet Poison Helpline (www.petpoisonhelpline.com) at (855) 764-7661
For an excellent resource over a myriad of topics for pet owners written by veterinary experts, use the Veterinary Partner website: www. veterinarypartner.vin.com.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) website has invaluable information for pet owners traveling with dogs and cats: www.avma.org.