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

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Keep Holidays Safe and Happy for Your Pet

Pet Column for the week of November 22, 2004

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

The holidays are full of lights, decorations, good food and drink, guests, and gifts galore. All these festivities are fun for people, but can be hazardous to pets. Dr. Steven Marks, chief of small animal medicine at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says, "Having pets around during the holidays is like having small children around--you have to think of all the things they can get into."

The holidays present all kinds of treats to tempt a hungry animal, and sometimes pet owners can be too generous with table foods or treats. Dr. Marks says, "Animals shouldn't eat foods during the holidays that they don't eat normally." When an animal eats large amounts of foods it's not accustomed to, especially fatty or sugary foods, it may get abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Sometimes gorging on junk food can lead to a bout of pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. So if the family pet gets a stomach ache that doesn't improve in 24 hours, a veterinarian should be contacted.

Some foods are actually toxic to pets, including chocolate (especially the more concentrated baker's chocolate) and foods with onion or garlic. Decorative plants such as holly, mistletoe, lilies, and poinsettias, are also toxic, and can cause vomiting and diarrhea.

The holiday tree and decorations pose all sorts of hazards to pets. Often the tree sits in a pan of water that contains preservatives, and if a pet drinks this water, it can get stomach problems. Dogs love to chew wires and cats love to climb trees (subsequently knocking them down), so tree lights pose both an electrocution hazard and a fire hazard. Keeping wires out of reach or out of view and placing the tree on a platform or pedestal can minimize risks. Of course, candles, fireplaces, and other open flames are also fire hazards, and common sense says never to leave these unattended.

Beware of toys--whether they are made for pets or for children--that have small parts that come off. These toys can cause choking, or can lodge in the esophagus or somewhere else in the gastrointestinal tract. Deflated or popped balloons can also get swallowed or can cause obstruction of the respiratory system. Keep in mind that if you have differently sized pets in the house, toys for some of them may be small enough for bigger pets to swallow.

Tinsel, garlands, ribbons, fishing line from ornaments, and other types of string are particularly attractive to cats and pose a strangulation risk if they get wrapped around a pet's neck. If strings are swallowed, they can cause a serious blockage in the intestines, since they will not pass easily through the digestive system. Surgical removal of these blockages is quite invasive, since they cannot simply be pulled out. Try to avoid using strings and tinsel altogether, or hang these decorations higher on the tree where pets cannot see or reach them.

Plastic or Mylar gift wrap, Mylar balloons, and plastic bags can become a suffocation hazard if left lying around. Again, shiny silver Mylar bags (used as gift wrap) and cellophane bags can be very attractive to animals, and a pet could easily get its head stuck while playing with one of these bags. Make sure that bags, gift wrap, strings and ribbons are cleaned up immediately after a wrapping or unwrapping session.

Even if your pet is friendly, Dr. Marks recommends keeping pets in a separate room when hosting a party. Hosts can be so busy entertaining that they dont pay attention to what the family pet is getting into. Doors opening and closing provide the opportunity for a pet to get out of the house, and animals underfoot can get stepped on or pose a tripping hazard for your guests.

Guests may drop food your pet can get to, and spilled or unattended alcohol and other recreational drugs may also be a hazard. Keep animals out of the kitchen when preparing or serving food; tripping on a pet is an easy way to drop a pot of hot food, causing burns for both you and your pet.

Dr. Marks explains that often pet accidents happen when people aren't home, so before you leave the house, be sure that your holiday treats and decorations are pet-proofed, or confine animals to areas where they can't get into much trouble.

Pet emergencies can ruin a holiday celebration, but fortunately, with some foresight and common sense, you can minimize the holiday hazards in your home. For additional peace of mind, keep your veterinarian's phone number and the number of a local emergency or 24-hour service handy.