Pets and the Holiday Season

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Pets and the Holiday Season

The Holiday Season is just around the corner with Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Day all ready to spring upon us within the next few weeks. People are busy this time of year shopping, cooking, planning menus and entertainment for guests, making travel plans and a myriad of other pressing activities. Many times, our schedules drift to a panic state by all family members including the four-legged members of the household. These celebrations can, and usually do, create opportunities for our pets to meet distress, injury, and sometimes death if measures are not put into place beforehand to protect against these possibilities. Considerations must be put in place to implement precautions to protect the family pets from illness and accidents during these hectic times.

Household guests can be stressful for pets during the Holiday Season. This is especially true if the house guests bring their own dog or cat to your house for the duration of their stay. The pets who live there all year feel like their territory is being infringed upon. Loud noises and the resultant anxiety of additional house guests can cause nervousness that leads to diarrhea and vomiting in many pets. It is usually a good idea to have a quiet room that can be closed off for your pets during these party atmosphere times. Place a television or stereo in the room with soft music to tamper the noise from the revelers. Many times, a chew toy that distributes a slow trail of “treats” will keep them occupied at least until they become accustomed to the noise and outside activity. Crowded rooms, new faces, doors left open and food left on the kitchen counter or table can create a danger for the pets. Children are home from school for an extended period, guests from out of town arrive and the normal home surroundings are changed to a festive mood with decorations, music, plants, fragrances, and people. This unusual activity influences the pets in the household, as many times they are relegated to a secondary role with less personal contact and attention to which they are normally accustomed. A synthetic hormone product called Felway can be sprayed on the pets and around the room to help relieve their anxiety. You can buy these products at most pet supply stores. For pets with severe anxiety levels during the intrusion of house guests, it may be necessary to consult your veterinarian about anti-anxiety or tranquillizing drugs. This procedure can be used if fireworks are part of the New Year’s Eve celebration as well. Check on your pets periodically to ensure they cannot escape through a door left open unintentionally or by chewing through the wall. Make sure all pets have a permanent microchip in place and are registered on one of the microchip company data bases that are available, so in case they do escape and become lost, they can be picked up and a very welcome call will be placed to your telephone. Your local veterinarian can advise you on microchips and the data base registration process. It is also wise to place a collar containing your contact information on the pet, so neighbors and passersby can return the pet if it does escape the chaos of the house at this time of year.

While preparing meals during these hectic Holiday Season days, be sure to take the pets into consideration. It is impossible to eliminate the wonderful smells that emanate from the kitchen during these festive times. Precautions must be taken to protect the pets that make up an important part of the family during these Holiday events. Sometimes pets, especially dogs, become overzealous in eating the family’s food and drink, and that can be detrimental to their health. Fat trimmings, skin and bones from the meat should be kept far out of reach of the family pets. Fat, whether cooked or raw, can cause pancreatitis while bone splinters can get lodged in your pet’s mouth, throat or intestines causing a digestive tract blockage. Poultry bones are brittle and can be especially dangerous or even fatal to animals. Twine used to hold meat together during the cooking process will contain the odors of the meat, but can have a critical effect on the digestive health of your pet. If swallowed, these string products can cause blockage in the digestive tract and many times can only be relieved with surgical intervention. Caffeine in large quantities can make dogs disorientated and sometimes cause seizure-like symptoms. Materials such as xylitol that is used as an artificial sweetener in baked goods, chewing gum and other products is highly toxic to dogs and cats. Chocolate contains theobromine, a chemical that can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and in higher doses can cause heart beat abnormalities, tremors, and possibly seizures. The darker the chocolate the more toxic the contents may be. Baker’s chocolate is ten times more toxic to dogs than lighter chocolates found in most candies. It is never good to allow dogs or cats to access marijuana products, either raw or in baked foods. With the recent legalization of medical marijuana in many states and recreational marijuana in four states, the incidence of marijuana toxicity has increased significantly in those localities. Baked products that contain raisins, currants and grapes even in small doses, can result in kidney failure in dogs. Small quantities of alcohol consumed by pets can cause vomiting, incoordination, confusion and seizures if given in enough quantity. Open purses and suitcases of guests can be dangerous if they contain certain human medications, wrapped gifts or foods that could be toxic to dogs and cats. Remember, pets do not always have the same reaction to certain medications as humans. You must protect against your pet gaining access to garbage in the kitchen or when turned outside where they can raid the garbage cans that may contain the scraps and leftovers of the family meal. Any garbage can contain toxic bacteria such as Salmonella or coliform bacteria that can cause digestive distress, vomiting and diarrhea.

A decorated Christmas tree provides ample opportunities for a dog or cat to get into trouble during the Holiday Season. Be sure the tree is supported properly so the pets, should they decide to investigate by pulling on a decoration or limb, do not pull the tree over. If using a live-cut Christmas tree that has been placed in a stand that contains water and fertilizer or preservatives, be sure to place a cover over the base so the pets cannot drink the water. Decorations and party favors can be especially dangerous for dogs and cats. Shards of glass from tree decorations can be swallowed and cause intestinal hemorrhaging and blockage. Cats are especially attracted to tinsel used to decorate the tree and can cause stomach or intestinal blockage if eaten in sufficient amounts. Packaging materials such as Styrofoam, string, ribbon and foil wrapping paper can be eaten, especially if it has a taste or smell of the food contained inside causing intestinal blockage that many times ends up with surgery as the last resort to remove it. Always keep lighted candles out of reach so the pets cannot knock them over or get burned, and electric cords taped to the floor, so the pets cannot chew on them. Those small batteries that sometimes come with mechanical toys can cause burns if chewed on by pets. Finally, protect the pets from the fireplace by placing a screen in front of the flames.

Many plants that are found inside the house during the Holiday Season can be toxic to pets. For instance, many types of lilies are highly toxic to cats. Licking themselves after skin contact while around certain lilies can be enough exposure to cause kidney problems in cats. Other plants that are common in our homes during the Holiday Season that can be toxic to pets are Christmas cactus, holly and mistletoe. Mistletoe if eaten in enough quantity can cause low blood pressure and heart problems. One of the materials most hazardous to pets in the wintertime Holiday Season is new or used antifreeze that is used to keep the radiator of cars from freezing and, sometimes placed on sidewalks and driveways to melt snow and ice. Imported snow globes may contain antifreeze and can be extremely dangerous to pets should they ingest even a small amount of it. Antifreeze products have a sweet odor and taste good to dogs, so they will drink it causing severe damage to their kidneys creating an immediate emergency. Antifreeze is usually stored in garages or basements and that might be the location some people place their dogs during the festivities of the Holiday Season to keep them from being underfoot. Make sure they do not have access to antifreeze in those locations where they normally do not frequent.

It is best to keep these reminders in an accessible location and review them during these hectic times of the Holiday Season. A little bit of caution on the part of the human family members might just be the savior of the four-legged family members. If you think your pet has been exposed to any of these unwanted materials, you should contact your local veterinarian immediately. Keep those telephone numbers in a convenient location to find them easily. Or you can contact the Pet Poison Helpline or the ASPCA Poison Control Unit. Both services are open 24 hours per day, and charge a service fee for their information.

Pet Poison Helpline:
Telephone: 1-855-289-0358

ASPCA Poison Control Center:
Telephone: 1-888-426-4435

Bruce W. Little, DVM