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

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Hazard-Free Holidays For Your Pets

Pet Column for the week of December 19, 2005

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

Haul out the holly...but when you do, please remember these tips from Dr. Doug Owens, veterinary internal medicine resident formerly at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, for keeping pets away from holiday hazards.

"Cats love to play with tinsel, ribbon, garlands, and twine during the holidays, but these stringy things can be hazardous if swallowed," says Dr. Owens. If strings are swallowed, they can get stuck in the intestines, causing a life-threatening obstruction requiring immediate surgical removal from the gastrointestinal tract.

Cats also love to climb the Christmas tree, drink from the water base, and bat at dangly tree decorations. "If the tree or ornaments fall and break, it could be hazardous for both people and pets," warns Dr. Owens. Dr. Owens recommends ensuring the tree is secure and either avoid using tinsel or hang both tinsel and delicate ornaments higher on the tree, where pets cannot reach them. Bird owners should also note that pet birds could be injured if they decide to explore the Christmas tree or other holiday decorations.

To avoid a holiday visit to the local emergency veterinarian, try to keep the house clutter-free and keep small items out of pets' reach. Pets with indiscriminate chewing habits, especially rabbits, chinchillas, and rodents, may bite extension cords or strands of lights around the house during the holidays. Chewing on wires can cause electrocution and serious burns, so tuck wires where pets won't find them. Pet Christmas stockings stuffed with treats can also be pulled from mantles or counter tops, so make sure the stockings are put away until you are ready for your pets to enjoy the surprise.

Open flames, whether from candles on the menorah, scented decorative candles, or a fireplace, are hazardous and should not be left unattended. Keep candles away from where cats routinely climb and walk, and put a sturdy screen in front of your fireplace. Smoke from scented candles and fumes from simmering potpourri may contain essential oil residues that can be very harmful to birds, so bird owners should probably avoid these products.

Although we may want our pets to share in the special holiday foods we enjoy, keep in mind that many of the foods that we eat are inappropriate for pets. Chocolate, macadamia nuts, grapes, raisins, onions, and garlic should never be fed to dogs. Holiday foods high in fat content should also not be fed to dogs because of increased risk of pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis can cause weakness, depression, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases become life-threatening.

Dr. Owens also suggests that people consider their pets when planning get-togethers. Pets that are normally friendly may become anxious or territorial with toys and food around crowds of people in their home. Dr. Owens suggests that pets that are not comfortable around small children and adults be put in a separate room during festivities.

For more information about holiday hazards and your pet, consult your veterinarian.