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

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Holiday Hazards for Your Pet

Pet Column for the week of December 11, 2006

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

Overeating, too much chocolate, too much drinking--all perils of this wonderful season we call the holidays. We know that with the season's festivities come tree decorations, egg nog and guests in warm houses. But you'd be surprised how benign decorations and goodies can turn into potential holiday hazards for our furry friends.

There are a myriad of holiday plants that are bought as gifts or decoration and are rumored to cause serious harm to your pets. Poinsettias and Christmas cactus are two plants fabled to be poisonous to pets.

"The urban legend is that they are deadly, but they really aren't," says Dr. Petra Volmer, a veterinary toxicologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

This holiday décor will do nothing more then cause stomach upset in your pets. "If your pet does ingest these plants back them off food for a day to calm their stomachs," Dr. Volmer reminds.

The holiday season is always full of candies and cookies. Often these candy gifts are left out on low-level coffee tables for guests to enjoy. Unfortunately, these same treats are tempting to our pets. Chocolate and macadamia nuts, two common ingredients in candy, are toxins for your pet. Theobromine, the active toxic ingredient in chocolate can cause cardiac and neurological abnormalities, while macadamia nuts can cause fever, depression, vomiting and/or apparent rear leg paralysis.

Batteries can be enticing chew toys for cats and dogs. Unfortunately, these staples of the holiday gift-giving tradition can result in gastrointestinal blockage, ulcers or even perforation.

Silica gel, which often comes packaged with toys, is used to wick moisture. "Silica gel is not usually toxic, but some of them do contain iron and that can cause problems," says Dr. Volmer.

Christmas lights can potentially cause a problem for our curious four-legged friends. The bubble lights that are commonly used on trees as decoration can be dangerous if ingested. The liquid used in many bubble lights is methylene chloride. Methylene chloride itself is toxic, and a portion can be converted to carbon monoxide once in the body. Carbon monoxide can damage the heart, brain and lungs because it interferes with the blood's ability to get oxygen to tissues. Another seemingly safe tree decoration is tinsel. This shiny decoration often will attract cats to eat it, resulting in a linear foreign body that may require surgery to correct.

Seasonal drinks mixed with alcohol are very common during this time of the year. Again, as tempting as it is for our pets, kitties and spiked egg nog do not mix. Alcohol has the same effects on animals as it does people: generalized depression and uncoordinated motor skills. However, our pets are much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and can be harmed more readily from it.

Lastly, let us not forget that guests commonly make an appearance over the holidays. Guests come with suitcases packed with adventures for our pets. It is important to make your guests aware that medications should be kept out of suitcases and out of reach of your pets.

It is simple to take a few precautionary measures to ensure that all of our family members have a joyful holiday season. These are just a few things to think about when your mind is focused on holiday cooking, guests and piles of cards to write.

For more information about holiday hazards for your pet, consult your local veterinarian. If you suspect that your pet has ingested something that is potentially toxic, immediately contact your local veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888/426-4435.