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

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Holiday Precautions for Pet Owners


Pet Column for the week of December 13, 2007


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

In homes around the nation preparations for the winter holiday festivities are in full swing; parties are being planned, houses cleaned in anticipation of guests, and decorations hung. Unfortunately with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season it is easy to forget that our holiday celebrations can pose potential hazards to our beloved pets.

"Holiday decorations should be chosen with your pet's safety in mind," says Dr. Steven Hansen, an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and Senior Vice President of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. Pet owners should be especially careful with any plants that they choose to bring into the home.

When deciding what flowers to include in your holiday party centerpiece, Dr. Hansen recommends taking a look at the lists of toxic and non-toxic plants that can be found on the ASPCA's Web site. Cat owners should completely avoid bringing any of the lily species, like the Easter lily, stargazing lily, and tiger lily, into the home. Dr. Hansen urges cat owners to be wary of these plants even if your cat is not normally a plant chewer since even one mouthful can be enough to induce kidney failure.

Other plant decorations that should be avoided during the holidays are holly berries, which can cause vomiting and depression if ingested, and mistletoe with real berries, a plant that can cause a severe drop in blood pressure and cardiac problems. If these plants are essential for the maintenance of your holiday décor, Dr. Hansen recommends using the plastic variety to prevent any toxicosis from accidental ingestion. Interestingly, pet owners who love the look of poinsettias can breathe easily, the myth that these plants are poisonous to pets is just that, a myth. If ingested, poinsettias can cause some mild stomach upset, but will not result in any long lasting internal damage.

Holiday parties can also pose potential health hazards for pets since guests may be tempted to indulge your pet with food from the table. Guests may think that they are giving your pet a treat when they can actually be causing more harm than good.

"Dont be afraid to tell your guests what your pet's normal routine is and lay down some ground rules for what your pet can and cannot be fed," Dr. Hansen asserts. Let your family and friends know that your pet should only be given appropriate treats and in the appropriate amount. If your guests are prone to giving in to those big brown eyes staring up at them, try this little trick: put your pet's normal dinner in a bowl on the table with a note indicating "Treats for Fido." This way both your guests and your pet will be happy with the situation.

"There is a long list of food items that your pets should never be fed," says Dr. Hansen. "It is important that your guests and members of your family are all aware of that these foods can cause potentially life threatening problems with your pets."

Some foods to consider would be any xylitol-sweetened (artificially sweetened) products, chocolate, macadamia nuts, raisins, grapes, and alcohol. The dangers of candy and baked goods sweetened with xylitol have only recently been discovered and thus far have only been found to affect the canine members of our families. Xylitol can cause a very rapid and severe drop in your dog's blood sugar and can lead to acute liver failure, even if only a small amount has been ingested.

Chocolate has long been known to be toxic to pets, and while darker chocolate has a higher potential to cause problems it is wise to keep any and all chocolate away from your pets. Raisins and grapes are food items that are also only dangerous to dogs; these items cause a syndrome which results in acute kidney failure. While the mechanisms behind this syndrome are unknown, the treatment to reverse the damage needs to be extremely aggressive in order to prevent long term damage or death.

Another holiday food item is the macadamia nut, which is a common addition to cookies, candies, and the infamous fruit cake. Macadamia nuts pose an interesting problem for dogs that ingest them. These nuts induce a syndrome that causes hind limb paralysis. Fortunately this paralysis is not long lasting, according to Dr. Hansen. With proper care to make sure your pet does not fall down any stairs or otherwise injure itself, the paralysis should be completely resolved within 72 hours post-ingestion.

"The most dangerous part of macadamia nut ingestion is the potential for a missed diagnosis. If owners don't witness their dog eating the nuts, or see nuts in the vomit or stool, macadamia nut toxicosis is not usually high on your veterinarian's list of differentials," warns Dr. Hansen. "It is important to keep these nuts out of reach of your pet since the paralysis they cause can potentially result in euthanasia if diagnosed as a more serious disease."

When having overnight guests staying at your home, like grandparents or other individuals taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, it is important to stress to these guests that medications should be stored out of Fluffy or Fido's reach. Dr. Hansen recommends keeping all medications in a drawer or cabinet that your pet cannot open in order to prevent accidental ingestion. While some containers may be childproof, no container is "pet proof." Pill containers, and even metered dose inhaler cartridges, can be easily punctured by your pet's teeth.
As always, prevention is the best medicine so to discover ways to make your home safe for your pet. Dr. Hansen suggests taking a look at the information about holiday and home hazards for pets on the ASPCA Web site (www.aspca.org/apcc/). Parents can also visit AnimaLand to find fun interactive games to play with their children to help them learn about household hazards and how to care for a pet.

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.