Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Holiday Season Pet Hazards

Pet Column for the week of December 11, 2000

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Theresa A. Fuess
Information Specialist

Holiday season adornments are attractive to all creatures. "The ornaments, foods, gifts, wrappings, ribbons, lights, and plants are all curiosities for pets," says Dr. Marcella D. Ridgway, veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital in Urbana. "Pets will investigate new items by sniffing, tossing, chasing, and finally by having a taste." A few precautions will help you avoid the holiday crowds at the animal hospital.

The number one problem seen by veterinarians this time of year is stomach or intestinal disturbances caused by pets eating the holiday feast or other novelties. Scraps from the table can cause gastrointestinal upset and even predispose pets to life-threatening pancreatitis. Bones can get stuck in the mouth or perforate the intestinal tract and should be avoided. Chocolate is poisonous to cats, dogs, and birds. Plastic wrap and aluminum foil coated with good-tasting juices are enticing but can cause intestinal obstruction and damage if eaten by the pet. Be sure leftovers and wrappers are properly disposed of, and keep pets on their usual diet.

Several decorative plants are poisonous. Mistletoe and holly can cause stomach upset with vomiting and diarrhea. The berries of these plants are attractive, easily swallowed, and potentially fatal if consumed. Poinsettias, like the leaves of most any plant, can also cause stomach upset. Use artificial mistletoe and holly; keep other plants out of your pet's reach.

Be sure Christmas trees are secured so that pets cannot pull them over. Omit preservatives from the tree-stand water and cover it so pets don't drink it. Avoid spray-on snow unless it is labeled for pet consumption. Low-hanging ornaments and ornament hooks have been chewed and swallowed, causing problems from stomach upset to damaged intestines. Decorative lights and electrical wiring can cause shock or burns when chewed on, so remember to unplug holiday lights when pets are unattended.

Holidays have lots of activity going on. Be sure indoor pets don't slip outside as guests come and go and that guests don't leave chocolate, ribbons, or other illicit treats within your pet's reach. Sometimes it's best to put your pet in a separate area, both to relieve the pet of the stress of new people and to prevent accidents.

Don't leave wrapped gifts under the tree with an unsupervised pet; the wrapping, ribbon, and enclosed gift are probably not compatible with your pet's digestive system. Ask Santa to put gifts out of your pet's reach so your pet won't beat you to them on Christmas morning.

When choosing a gift for your pet, consider the pet as an individual. Cats enjoy lightweight toys they can bat around, catnip toys, scratching posts, and kitty perches. Dogs like balls, chew toys, and things they can carry around. However, beware of toys with parts, such as bells, buttons, string, yarn, or squeaky parts, that can be detached and swallowed. Watch how your pet handles a new toy until you are sure it is safe. Some dogs treat a stuffed toy like a friend and carry it around and sleep with it. Others will tear them up, eat the stuffing, and get into trouble. Also, if there is more than one pet in the household, consider all the pets before buying for any one of them. A one-inch diameter toy for a cat is fine, but a puppy in the household may swallow it and possibly require surgery.

If your pet does get sick, consult your veterinarian before giving any medications. Many of the over-the-counter drugs, such as Tylenol, are toxic for animals even though they are safe for us. Don't wait to see if your pet gets better. If your pet is acting sick, consult your veterinarian. For more information on pet health, contact your local veterinarian.