Have you noticed that more people are sending out holiday cards featuring their pets? Whether in a Santa hat, curled up under the Christmas tree, or posing with a menorah, our furry and feathered friends seem to be more and more a part of our family traditions.
This is because pets are increasingly important members of many families, offering emotional and even physical health benefits. So if you’re traveling to Grandma’s house for the holidays, or you’re entertaining at your own home, be sure to take steps to protect beloved animal companions from perils that could make the holidays far less jolly.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration veterinarian Carmela Stamper shares the following tips for keeping cats and dogs safe during the season:
Don’t give your pet too many treats at once
If dogs receive a stocking full of pet treats, make sure they don’t gobble them all up at once. According to Stamper, if a dog eats the treats whole, or eats too many at once, they may not be able to digest them. Ppet treats that aren’t fully chewed can get stuck in the trachea (windpipe) or gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach, and intestines), particularly in small dogs.
If your dog is in obvious distress from eating too much too fast, says Stamper, contact your vet immediately. Some telltale signs are drooling, choking, or vomiting.
Take note of timing. If a bone or chew toy lodges in your dog’s stomach or intestines, the symptoms might not be immediate. Hours to days later, your dog may vomit and have diarrhea, be less active, not want to eat, and have stomach pain. If the blockage stays there too long, your dog may become very ill. “When in doubt, contact your veterinarian, who may need to take x-rays or use an endoscope to see what and where the problem is,” Stamper says.
Watch out for tinsel and ribbons
When decorating your tree and wrapping or unwrapping gifts, keep a close eye on where you leave your leftover tinsel, string, and ribbons.
“Your cat may find these decorations irresistible because they look like easy-to-catch, sparkly, and wiggly prey,” Stamper says. In fact, they can cause serious stomach and intestinal damage.
Symptoms may take a few hours or several days to appear, and include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, and decreased activity. Play it safe by keeping tinsel off the tree and collecting all ribbons and strings after gifts are opened.
Beware of holiday plants
If you have holiday plants such as poinsettias, holly, or mistletoe around, take care. When you display (or dispose of) these plants, your cat may decide they’re good to eat, Stamper says.
Poinsettias, for example have a milky-white latex sap that can irritate your animal’s mouth and stomach and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. The National Animal Poison Control Center (NAPCC) states that the major toxic chemicals in mistletoe are lectins and phoratoxins. These chemicals affect the heart, causing low blood pressure and slowed heart rate. “Fortunately for your cat, severe mistletoe toxicity is uncommon and usually occurs only if your pet eats a large amount,” Stamper explains. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea, difficulty breathing, slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, and odd behavior.
While holly isn’t as harmful, you should still discourage your pets from eating the berries and leaves, Stamper says. In both dogs and cats, the plant’s toxins can cause drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and decreased activity.
Be stingy with table scraps
Resist the temptation to give your pet table scraps that are high in fat, such as fat trimmed from meat or skin from your roasted turkey or chicken. “In addition to the typical gastrointestinal upset, rich, fatty foods can cause a potentially life-threatening and painful disease called pancreatitis,” Stamper says. The most common symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs include vomiting, stomach pain, restlessness, shaking, diarrhea, fever, and weakness. In cats, the symptoms are less clear and harder to notice, such as decreased appetite and weight loss.
And be careful what you put in the trash can, Stamper warns. Dogs, especially, are notorious for helping themselves to the turkey carcass or steak bones disposed of there. As with too many treats, bones can get stuck in your dog’s esophagus or trachea. Sharp pieces of bones can also injure your dog’s mouth, esophagus, and stomach, and can cause severe internal injuries.
“Don’t forget, once dinner is done, dispose of the leftovers and bones somewhere where your pets can’t get to them,” Stamper says.
Know what foods are toxic to your pet
As many pet owners know, chocolate can be dangerous to your dog or cat. Chocolate toxicity depends on the type and amount of chocolate a dog has eaten, their body weight, and if they’re extra-sensitive to the toxic compound in chocolate called theobromine, Stamper says.
Moreover, seemingly harmless mints common in the holiday season could cause life-threatening problems for your dog if they contain xylitol, also found in food items such as candy, gum, some peanut butters and baked goods, and personal hygiene products, such as toothpaste and mouthwash. Symptoms occur quickly after dogs eat xylitol-containing items, Stamper says. Vomiting is generally first, followed by symptoms associated with the sudden lowering of your dog’s blood sugar (hypoglycemia), such as decreased activity, weakness, staggering, incoordination, collapse, and seizures. Check the package labels to see if they contain xylitol.
After eating chocolate, some pets develop more severe complications, including liver failure, bleeding disorders, and death. If you suspect your dog has eaten chocolate or xylitol-containing items, consider it an emergency and call your veterinarian immediately.
Finally, there’s alcohol. Depending on how much they drink, pets that consume alcohol can develop serious problems. The most common symptoms in pets associated with the consumption of alcoholic beverages are vomiting, diarrhea, incoordination, weakness, decreased activity, difficulty breathing, and shaking. In severe cases, coma and death from respiratory failure (lungs stop functioning) can occur. “Don’t accidentally leave your eggnog on the coffee table,” Stamper says.