Protect Pets from Halloween Hazards

spooky dog on Halloween

You may love Halloween tricks and treats, but your furry friend most likely needs extra oversight during the celebration.

Dr. Canaan Shores, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, sees dogs and cats through the hospital’s urgent and convenient care service at its Veterinary Medicine South Clinic, 2100 S. Goodwin, Urbana. He answers questions pet owners may have about how to prevent or respond to close encounters of the scary kind.

What are the most common Halloween hazards you see?

“Ingestion of several types of candy can definitely pose a hazard to pets,” says Dr. Shores. “The most common would be exposure to chocolate, which can cause neurologic signs, cardiac signs, or gastrointestinal signs, based on the type of chocolate and amount ingested.

“In general, the darker the chocolate, the more toxic. Cocoa powder and baking chocolate are the most toxic.

“Other candy-related concerns include xylitol, a sweetener found in some ‘sugar-free’ candy products, and excessive fat intake, especially from eating large amounts of chocolate.

“The final type of toxicity worth mentioning is raisin ingestion, which can cause severe kidney disease.”

What is a common Halloween hazard that is not candy?

“A big concern associated with Halloween is behavioral problems with pets,” he says. “With strangers—and bizarrely dressed strangers at that!—frequently coming to the door, there is an increased risk of bites and scratches. There is also the risk of pets escaping from a home and running away.”

How can owners best protect their animals from these hazards?

You can minimize pets’ exposure to candy by keeping the candies in a sealed container out of reach of the pet. Because of the various toxicity risks, it’s best to avoid offering any type of candy to pets. Instead treat your pet to a product made for dogs or cats.

“To prevent some of the behavioral hazards, I advise limiting a pet’s exposure to strangers and frequently opened doors,” continues Dr. Shores. “Keep your pet in a different part of the house, behind closed doors.

“A noise machine or fan can be helpful to reduce auditory stimulus. There are safe, effective medications your veterinarian can prescribe in advance if your pet needs extra help to reduce anxiety and provide sedation.”

How does the most common hazard wreak havoc on our dogs?

“At high doses, chocolate can cause disease of the nervous system, such as seizures. At lower doses, the cardiovascular system can be affected, leading to a very high heart rate and/or blood pressure,” explains Dr. Shores.

“A majority of exposures cause gastrointestinal signs. Pets should be monitored for seizures, hyperexcitability, vomiting, or diarrhea. While rare, chocolate toxicity can cause death if the dose is high enough.

“The primary concern with raisin and grape toxicity is kidney disease. The exact mechanism of toxicity and the exposure level that can cause kidney disease are not known, so veterinary attention is recommended for any ingestion of raisins or grapes.

“Initially, the clinical signs caused by raisin ingestion are vomiting, usually within a few hours after ingestion. This can progress to diarrhea, abdominal pain, and lethargy. It can take up to five days for kidney disease to develop, depending on the amount of raisins eaten.”

“Xylitol toxicity is primarily a concern for dogs,” continues Dr. Shores. “We typically see hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) but can also see liver failure. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, which means it tastes sweet and can trick the dog’s body into releasing insulin, which causes the blood sugar to drop to dangerously low levels.

“Clinical signs of hypoglycemia include mental dullness, hypersalivation, stumbling or incoordination, and potentially seizures. The mechanism for how xylitol causes liver injury is not yet clear. Signs of hypoglycemia can occur as soon as 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion. Signs of liver problems can develop within 12 to 72 hours.”

When a problem arises, how do pet owners know whether to take their pet to the emergency service or to an urgent care service, such as you offer at the Veterinary Medicine South Clinic?

“In general, the ER is best utilized for pets that are actively experiencing a life-threatening problem and/or severe pain,” says Dr. Shores. “Urgent/convenient care focuses on pets with health concerns that are non-life-threatening, who cannot be seen by their primary care veterinarian.

“Examples of conditions best addressed at an ER include active seizures, difficulty breathing, visibly distended abdomen, and major trauma, such as being hit by a vehicle. Examples of conditions most appropriate for urgent care include ear and skin problems, diarrhea, inappropriate urination, and wounds or lacerations.”

How should owners respond if their pet is exposed to any of the Halloween hazards you described? 

“I recommend calling to describe the concern before bringing the pet in.

“If the concern involves ingestion of a toxin, calling right away can be beneficial. There are two poison control hotlines for pets – the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and the Pet Poison Helpline – that are great resources in addition to your local veterinary clinic. The hotlines charge a consultation fee, but the call might save a trip to a clinic,” says Dr. Shores.

“If the pet is actively showing clinical signs, it depends on what signs and how severe they are. For chocolate toxicity, the urgent care service can readily deal with vomiting and diarrhea, but if the pet has cardiac or neurologic signs, those would be best addressed in the ER.”

By Reilee Juhl