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Animals Ink: Keeping the holidays safe for your pets

Holidays are a time of joy and sharing with family and friends. Pets are an important part of our families, so it is essential to consider their safety needs during the holiday season.

Many common holiday items can pose dangers for our pets, especially because pets often do not understand the consequences of their own actions. Potential dangers include chewing and swallowing holiday items like ornaments, decorations, electrical cords, toxic plants, foods and toys. Results can range from mild harm to the mouth to severe life-threatening emergency situations.

When decorating your home for the holidays, keep in mind that decorations can be intriguing for pets and invite play. This play can involve chewing and sometimes ingestion. Some chewed items like glass ornaments or light bulbs can injure the mouth and, if swallowed, can injure the esophagus, stomach or intestines. Chewed electrical cords can cause electrical burns and electrocution resulting in damage to the mouth and even death. Swallowing tinsel, strings, small ornaments and hooks can cause serious injury to the stomach and intestines requiring surgery to remove or repair. In addition, holiday decorations can contain heavy metals that can be toxic when ingested.



Avoid these hazards by pet proofing your holiday home. Keep tinsel and popcorn strings out of reach of your pets. Don’t leave your Christmas lights plugged in when you are not able to monitor your pet. Food should not be placed into wrapped packages that pets have access to. Toys should be designed for pets; be aware that small eyes and squeakers can be swallowed, stuffing can be eaten, and threads can be interesting to pull on and swallow. Treats should be pet-friendly and avoid ingredients that can be harmful and food should be fresh so that food poisoning does not occur. Holiday plants should be placed so that pets cannot chew or ingest them.

Foods and food ingredients to avoid include chocolate, onions and garlic, candy and sugarless gum with xylitol, bones, leftover fatty meat scraps and foods that have been left out for long periods of time. Chocolate toxicity depends on the amount of chocolate ingested and the type. Small amounts of chocolate may only cause a mild upset with some vomiting and diarrhea, while larger amounts may result in agitation, elevated heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, seizures and collapse. Cats are more sensitive than dogs to the effects of onion and garlic. Depending on the amount ingested and the sensitivity of the individual, damage to the red blood cells can occur along with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Xylitol can cause low blood glucose and liver problems in dogs. As with chocolate, the severity of toxicity is dose dependent – only one piece of chewing gum may be enough to cause problems in a 10 pound dog.



Bones can become lodged in the stomach or intestines and result in mild (digestive upset) to severe problems (blockage) that require surgery. Leftover fatty meat scraps can potentially lead to severe inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) resulting in abdominal pain, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Foods left sitting for long periods of time can give the opportunity for bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli to grow. These organisms have the potential to cause food poisoning or bacterial contamination. Severe intestinal problems and illness can result from this food contamination. According to Colorado State University Extension, when the room temperature is less than 90 degrees, food should not be left out for more than 2 hours and cooked leftovers should be used within 4 days.

Common holiday plants include the poinsettia, mistletoe, lilies, and holly. Poinsettias are no longer considered to be highly toxic to pets. The milky white sap of the poinsettia can cause a mild self-limiting oral irritation, salivation and vomiting. Mistletoe is also currently considered to be less toxic than thought in the past. Ingestion of the American mistletoe leaves or berries may result in some vomiting and lethargy. Lilies like the tiger, Asiatic, Easter and day lilies are dangerous for cats. Ingestion of 1-2 leaves or flower petals can result in sudden kidney failure. Holly leaves are considered to be more of an irritation to the mouth from the spiny leaves while the berries can cause stomach and intestinal upset.

The best policy is to make your holiday home pet safe and monitor your pets so that you can have a quiet and enjoyable holiday season. Contact your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your pet.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.


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