Homemade ornaments can be toxic to dogs

Salt ornaments are pretty and a staple of preschool holiday craft projects. Children bring them home and give them as gifts. And they’re potentially deadly to dogs.

That’s because they usually contain a large amount of salt. “Dogs like the scent of them and the taste of them,” said Renee Schmid, DVM, a consulting veterinarian in clinical toxicology. “They’ll eat them right off the tree.”

That can lead to salt toxicity. Lethargy, frequent urination, diarrhea, and vomiting are among the first signs. In severe cases, tremors, seizures, coma, and even death are possible.

Schmid, who works at the Pet Poison Helpline, told NEWStat that salt ornaments are kind of a stealth holiday hazard, especially for families who may have adopted their first pet during the pandemic.

These salt dough ornaments may have been made by their children years ago in grade school and stored away safely during the year only to be brought out to decorate the tree during the holidays, where they offer a tempting snack to an inquisitive dog.

Schmid says it’s not uncommon for pet owners to see that a dog got into a salt ornament and think nothing of it, “But even a small, two-inch ornament could potentially cause salt toxicity in a 20-pound dog. Some of the recipes will call for a cup or even two cups of salt,” Schmid said. “Anything more than a third of a teaspoon of salt per kilogram of body weight can cause salt toxicity in dogs. So it doesn’t take a large ornament to make that happen.”

Schmid mentioned a typical case from the previous week involving a seven-month-old Australian shepherd mix named Penny who may have eaten as many as three homemade salt ornaments—the owner wasn’t sure of the exact number.

Fortunately, the owner noticed that Penny was drinking and urinating more than usual, and called the Helpline. “Our staff had them take the dog in to a veterinary clinic and the veterinarian called us for treatment recommendations,” Schmid said.

“We discussed possible signs to watch for and we advised the veterinarian to check electrolytes to assess whether or not the dog’s sodium level was elevated. [It was.] Then we recommended starting IV fluids and monitoring for approximately eight to 10 hours.”

Penny turned out to be fine. But based on the amount of salt in the recipe, Helpline staff calculated that three ornaments would have been enough to put her at risk of poisoning.

Schmid noted that it’s all about the body weight: “We also had several cases with large-breed dogs that ingested a smaller number of ornaments and were not considered to be a risk for poisoning.”

Salt isn’t the only danger: The baked ornaments can also be very difficult to pass, causing pain or obstruction.

Schmid says salt ornaments are so common that people don’t really think about them: “We have some on our tree that my daughter made in preschool and they’re more than 10 years old,” Schmid noted.

“That’s why so many pet owners blow it off,” She added. “They think, ‘Oh, this was a little, couple-of-inch ornament, it’s no big deal.’ But it is.” 

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