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How To Protect Pets From Hidden Winter Holiday Dangers

The winter holiday season is a wonderful time of year. Families get together, children are bubbling with joy, and people get into the spirit of giving. Pets get to wear cute little accessories like Christmas sweaters and deer antlers, and many get stockings of their own stuffed with toys, treats, bones and other goodies. It is indeed a magical time for all, but hidden in that magic are all too common dangers lurking for your furry little family members; leaving me compelled to spread the word each holiday season so that pet owners are aware of, and can avoid holiday perils for their pets.

While dogs tend to more often get themselves into trouble during the holidays, cats are far from immune. Cats have an innate love of anything stringy. Balls of yarn, Christmas tree tinsel and garlands are all irresistible items that many cats cannot refrain from chewing and swallowing. The problem with these items is that if they are 4 inches or longer, they pose the most dangerous kind of gastrointestinal foreign body obstruction in pets: the linear foreign body.

What makes these kinds of obstructions so dangerous is that they not only obstruct the gut, but they also commonly lacerate the bowel as the intestines in their ill-fated attempt to contract and move them along, make the stringy material taught. When bowel gets lacerated, it spills its bacteria ridden contents into the sterile abdominal cavity and an already dangerous situation becomes critical. It is best to avoid having these items around if possible, or at least use deterrents like scat mats around the tree to keep the cats away from it.

Christmas tree lights are another common danger for both dogs and cats alike. Some are compelled to chew them, posing a very serious electrocution hazard for the pet, and a major fire hazard for the home. Most have seen the classic holiday movie, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and have seen the tragically funny scene when the Griswold’s senile aunt’s cat chews the Christmas tree lights and is instantly vaporized as the tree is consumed by fire. While there is a bit of comedic exaggeration in that scene, it is not too far removed from what can really happen.

That is about it for the unique dangers the holiday season brings to kitties, but for dogs, it is merely the tip of the iceberg.  Oh, those silly, silly dogs.

The main problem we run into with dogs is that they will eat just about anything. I have surgically removed all manner of items from canine guts, from rocks and Christmas tree ornaments (hook and all), to tampons, underwear, socks, and rocks, to name a few.  Since foreign body obstructions are really a year-round problem not necessarily unique to the holiday season, I will focus more on toxic items that dogs will tend to eat this time of year. Nonetheless, I would be ever aware that obstructions can and do happen all the time.

Candy and chocolate are top on my list, for who can blame our dogs for wanting to delve into these tasty treats?  The problem is that chocolate contains a substance called theobromine that is harmless to us, but is slowly eliminated by dogs and can make them seriously, even fatally ill.  Many candies have an artificial sweetener called xylitol, which is potentially toxic to dogs.  Many people erroneously think that xylitol is only present in diet or low calorie candy, but they are wrong.  Xylitol is often used in sweets not for its low calorie ability to sweeten, but because it simply sweetens better than sugar.

Gingerbread houses are another big problem.  Most gingerbread houses these days are meant more for appearance than for consumption, and are thus held together by glues and resins that are toxic to dogs, but all the dog knows is that gingerbread house smells yummy, and he intends to eat it…all of it…and then end up very seriously ill.  I solve this problem by not keeping them in the home, but if you must have these holiday treasures in your home, be sure to keep them out of paw’s reach.

Rich foods that we eat more of this time of year that often do not agree with our own GI systems; usually agree even less with our dogs.  Thus, gastrointestinal upset, vomiting/diarrhea, and pancreatic disease caused by overly rich foods are among the most common cases we see this time of year.  Often, the owners themselves simply wanting their dogs to enjoy delicious holiday food along with them offer the dogs these rich foods that may make them sick. Other times, it is the dog that gets into the garbage that is not well secured, or helps himself to an abandoned child’s plate.

I am not saying that you necessarily should not give your pet any yummy holiday food this season, but just use common sense.  A lean piece of steak, white meat turkey, some green beans or other lean, low sugar items should pose little danger.  However, I would avoid pork, ham, desserts, and other high fat and/or high sugar items.

You must secure your garbage, because not only are there overly rich dietary items in there that may make your pets sick, poultry and pork bones are often there that can obstruct and lacerate bowel.

Enjoy your pets this holiday season, while doing your best to keep them out of my office with illness or injury that could easily have been prevented.  Have a safe and merry Christmas!

With love,

Dr. Roger

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

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