Holiday pet-health hazards and how to avoid them

Emergency room visits skyrocket over the holidays. We asked an ER clinician what to watch out for—from tinsel and homemade ornaments, to the dangers brought into your home by visiting pets and people.

By Tony McReynolds

BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospitals see a 372% increase in emergency visits every Christmas Eve over other days of the year . . . and that’s just the pets who got into the holiday chocolate. That figure doesn’t include the pets who scarfed dough ornaments, slurped Christmas tree water, or got into a turf war with Grandma’s poodle under the table at Christmas dinner. But they all boil down to two things, says emergency room clinician Kaihla Parker, DVM: “Being naughty and getting into things.”

More specifically, Parker told NEWStat that most holiday ER visits involve pets getting into the wrong thing, like chocolate and Christmas ornaments (“We see a lot of ornament ingestion.”), and fights with other pets.

For the last decade, Parker has been at AAHA-accredited Animal Emergency and Specialty Hospital, a state-of-the-art, 24/7 emergency specialty hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s worked plenty of holidays, and she knows what makes them different from a pet’s point of view: “People have things out during the holidays that aren’t out the rest of the year,” she says. Things that are specific to the holidays, like Christmas trees and tinsel, things that are new and intriguing to pets. She says owners don’t take that novelty factor into account.

“They forget that cats like to climb trees. And that kittens love tinsel.”

Avoid decoration-related injuries

Keep holiday decorations out of pets’ reach, says Parker. Be especially vigilant about:

  • Breakable ornaments: Pets love low-hanging fruit . . . and that includes Christmas ornaments. Don’t place glass or ceramic ornaments on low branches within easy reach of a dog’s wagging tail or a cat’s darting paw. You’ll reduce the risk of deep lacerations that may require sutures.
  • Homemade dough ornaments: Salt dough ornaments are a staple of preschool holiday craft projects. Children bring them home and give them as gifts, but they’re potentially deadly to hungry dogs who may see them as a tempting snack.
  • Tinsel: Although less common than it used to be, cats love to play with it—and sometimes eat it—with potentially deadly consequences.
  • Christmas tree water: The water in Christmas tree stands may contain dangerous bacteria, algae, or fertilizers, and can sicken pets who drink it. Keep tree stands covered.
  • Electric cords: Puppies and kittens love to chew things, including electrical cords, which can burn or electrocute them if they manage to bite through the rubber coating. So keep them tucked safely out of reach (especially the ones running to the tree).
  • Great Aunt Bernice’s handmade macrame holiday wall hanging from the early seventies: (Author’s note: This may be specific to my own childhood, but I remember a certain wool-sucking kitty and one less-than-jolly Christmas Eve visit to the ER. The cat lived, but Grandma never forgave her . . .)

Beware holiday toxins

Holiday foods, plants, and other items that seem perfectly safe can be dangerous for pets. Keep pets out of the ER by keeping them away from these potentially poisonous items:

  • Chocolate: Chocolate contains toxins that can cause gastrointestinal, cardiac, and neurologic problems. Dark chocolate and baking chocolate contain the highest concentrations of toxins, although milk chocolate can also cause toxicity if large amounts are eaten.
  • Toxic plants: Many plants used in holiday arrangements, such as mistletoe, holly, and lilies, are toxic to pets when ingested. Some plants are treated with potentially toxic fertilizers or pesticide. Consider skipping green arrangements altogether or choose artificial plants to keep pets safe.
  • Medications: While your clients may know to keep medications out of their pet’s reach, their holiday houseguests may not. Human prescription and over-the-counter medications are the most common cause of pet toxicities. Overnight visitors should keep the guest room door closed and all medications tucked safely away.
  • Miscellaneous snacks: Other human food items popular during the holidays are also toxic to pets, such as grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and xylitol (found in some peanut butter, sugar-free candy and gum), so stick to pet food and pet-safe treats.

Dealing with problematic visiting pets

“Because people are traveling during the holidays, they want to bring their dogs to Grandma’s house,” Parker says. “Or grandma wants to bring her poodle to your house.” The upshot: you have a lot of dogs who aren’t normally housed together suddenly thrust together for the holidays. “You have a lot of abnormal interactions, so there can be a lot of trauma or fights.”

Especially over food.

“If the dogs are too aggressive, don’t feed them next to each other,” Parker advises. “Feed them in separate rooms. And make sure they’re put up when any new person comes to the home.” Parker says it’s important to keep the dogs separated, at least at first. “Crates are really important,” she adds.

You know what isn’t festive? Colitis.

Specifically, stress-related diarrhea. “We see a lot of it [during the holidays],” Parker says ruefully. “Any kind of stressful situation can cause colitis. The same thing for cats.”

She recommends probiotics for dogs to minimize the possibility of stress-induced colitis: “If you’re going to be traveling, put your dog on a probiotic before you go anywhere.” Or before Grandma comes over.

Especially if she’s bringing the poodle.



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