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

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Holiday Hazards Threaten Pets' Holiday Cheer

Pet Column for the week of November 19, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

While you festoon your home with trees, ornaments, and lights and stock up on special holiday treats, keep in mind that these activities could bring about holiday hazards for your pets.

Cats are notorious for consuming tinsel and ribbon. Dr. Kent Davis, a veterinarian formerly associated with the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, warns, "Objects such as string or ribbon can cause the intestine to bunch up like an accordion. If this occurs, friction can cause the string to cut into the intestine like a saw, making many small perforations that must be repaired by a surgeon. Other types of foreign objects, such as tinsel or small toys, can cause intestinal blockage."

Both dogs and cats have been known to chew on electrical cords, causing electrocution. Strings of lights present a seasonal electrical hazard. Shiny glass ornaments on Christmas trees can be irresistible toys for many cats. Unfortunately, these can be knocked off and shattered, causing danger for both pets and their owners. Dr. Davis says, "Some cats have even been known to climb the Christmas tree and knock it over, causing a mess and a potential fire hazard!"

Some cats are fond of eating houseplants. Several holiday plants, including poinsettia, holly, and mistletoe, are poisonous. All of these plants will cause vomiting and possibly diarrhea if consumed. Likewise the product added to the Christmas tree water to make the tree last longer may cause vomiting if pets drink out of the tree stand.

Dr. Davis says, "Sometimes we see animals come in with alcohol poisoning. In these cases, it is usually due to people giving their animals alcohol because they think it would be funny to see their pet get drunk. Animals are much smaller than people and it does not take much alcohol to make them seriously ill."

"Of all the potential hazards," says Dr. Davis, "the majority of holiday-related cases that veterinarians see are food related. The leading problem is probably chocolate toxicity." Chocolate is toxic to almost all animals. A lethal dose for a 20-pound dog is only about six squares of baking chocolate or eight or nine times that amount of milk chocolate.

If the dog has just eaten the chocolate, it's best to induce vomiting. However, if the chocolate was eaten much earlier, the contents of the stomach have already moved to the intestine and the only treatment available is supportive care.

Onions and garlic contain sulfides, which can cause the destruction of red blood cells, and are toxic to animals. Even foods spiced with garlic or onion salts should not be given to pets.

Gastroenteritis-a fancy term for an upset stomach-is another problem associated with the holidays. Dr. Davis says, "Animals usually get this from foods that they are not used to eating, such as high-fat or high-sugar foods."

Over the holidays, make sure everyone has a good time by preventing harmful situations for your pets. If you have questions related to holiday hazards, please consult your local veterinarian. Have a wonderful holiday season!