We know that Christmas has its own set of wonders, but we also know it has some dangers for pets. Are they what you thought?

  1. Mistletoe - Real mistletoe is very toxic to both dogs and cats (as well as humans). If you hang it, make sure it stays out of reach. Symptoms of ingestion can include some very bad signs, like GI upset, cardiac collapse, and erratic behavior. If you think that your pet has eaten mistletoe, go to the animal ER as soon as possible. *Interesting side note - Poinsettia often appears on lists like these, but I have NEVER treated a pet for poinsettia ingestion. Either they are very unlikely to actually eat it or it isn't as toxic as purported. Either way, it could still cause stomach upset, so keep pets away.
  2. Sweet Treats - I don't think that people realize that xylitol (sugar substitute found in many sugar free candies and gum) is toxic to pets. Cats are not likely to eat sweets because they probably cannot taste sweet flavors, so this more of a dog thing. I have seen many canine patients in danger from eating a whole pack of sugar-free gum. Fortunately, the owners had all discovered the transgression and rushed in, but I have heard of others who were not so lucky. Holidays pose a risk of exposure to increased temptations, both sweet and sugar-free, that are not good for pets. I think that a good rule of thumb is to keep everything not specifically pet-labeled out of reach. As always, remember that chocolate, grapes, and raisins are on the list of foods not suitable for pets.
  3. Tinsel - Tinsel, like Easter grass, is a holiday accompaniment that I could cheerfully do without. It doesn't do our pets any good either. Cats especially find tinsel and grass fascinating and will eat them. The trouble is, as your cat gnaws and plays, those long strands of indigestible, virtually unbreakable, synthetic can become wrapped around the base of the tongue where you would not see it unless you really knew how to check. When its other end is swallowed it cannot pass because it is anchored in the mouth, causing the intestine to bunch up like an elastic waist band. This presents a surgical emergency, and the prognosis worsens if treatment is delayed.
  4. Ornaments - Christmas tree ornaments can be enticing for pets to play with. I have surgically removed them from the intestines of several patients. I suggest keeping the tree and other decorations inaccessible to pets when possible. If pets must be unattended during the holidays, it might be wise to confine them to a safe room or crate. Surgical foreign body removal can be economically expensive and medically life threatening. Products are available for teaching pets to avoid danger, however, and a hidden transmitter with a diameter zone can provide invisible protection around the Christmas tree with a humane buzz.
  5. Electric cords - Electric cords are interesting to pets, but chewing them causes burns in the mouth andsome serious secondary complications, such as fluid in the lungs. You need emergency help if your pet bites an electrical cord.
  6. Open doors - Many pets escape and are lost in the dark when doorways are so frequently open for guests. It is always a good idea to microchip your pet, even indoors-only ones. Be SURE to register the chip with an international database and keep your info current. We always encourage our clients to list us as their veterinarian so that if they can't be reached timely, we can be given the opportunity keep pets safely with us temporarily.
  7. Fatty meals - Holidays are festive and in this country they frequently center around meals. Many of the foods that we love for the holidays can serve as a hazard for pets and ANY food can be hazardous to pets in excessive quantities. Post-holiday visits to Applebrook often include cases of pancreatitis. This inflammation of the pancreas, found in both dogs and cats, is not only painful but also life threatening. For dogs especially, acute pancreatitis results from eating high fat meals. Some dog and cat breeds and individuals are predisposed to this problem, and victims seem to be more vulnerable to certain foods than to others (at least in my practice). Pancreatitis is a tricky condition, but it's largely preventable: just do your best to avoid risk factors.
  8. Spices - It often comes as a surprise that what seems like an indulgent treat for a dog or cat may actually be a health hazard. For example, no matter how much you yourself enjoy a nice dish of spaghetti, anything with garlic and onions can harm your pet so resist your inclination to share it.  Abnormal destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia) and gastrointestinal difficulties may be the dangerous, unintended consequence. Since the hard way is the only way to determine how severely your pet could be affected, it is obviously best to withhold garlic and onions completely, even at Christmas.
  9. Kids' toys - Toys that are small or have small parts are always an ingestion risk for pets. Obviously few of these are digestible, so when one lodges in the intestines, it can provoke a surgical emergency. A pet suffering from complete intestinal blockage is usually very sick with multiple incidents of projectile, foul vomiting even when not eating but only drinking water. When your pet can't hold down clear water, you have an emergency that cannot wait for your vet to return from holiday. Get to the animal ER immediately.
  10. Hustle and Bustle - With new people, and probably lots of them, both children and adults, joining you during the holidays, your pet is seeing lots of new faces, hearing lots of new voices, and smelling lots of new scents. Some pets don't like noise, fear strangers, dislike children, or just don't manage change very well. Try to be sensitive to your pet's needs. Give him/her a safe place to hide (like a crate or a quiet bedroom) and warn new people to go slowly. Make sure your cat can easily access the litterbox without confronting a crowd; otherwise, you could be asking for "accidents."
  11. Cold weather/frozen water (outdoor pets) - Don't forget outdoor pets in the chaos of the holidays. Make sure they have fresh (not frozen) water and are appropriately sheltered.
  12. Disruption of schedule with meds and potty breaks – Some pets require daily or more frequent medications, like insulin or thyroid supplements. Set a reminder on your cell phone or leave a note for yourself so the preparation and merriment don't cause you to forget or mistime meds. And don't neglect to walk your dog! Never is exercise and attention more necessary than when the family is distracted and the household disordered.
  13. Trash - Keep in mind that a family's trash is a pet's treasure, no matter how dangerous. Animals exercise no discretion when it comes to digging for tasty smelling leftovers. Make absolutely certain that ALL the trash is inaccessible to pets.

Above all, the holidays are a time to enjoy friends and family. As you celebrate with loved ones, don't forget to include those with fur!

Dr. Kathryn Primm is a veterinarian and author. Her first book is Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People, and you can visit her author site at http://www.drprimm.com/