Interactive Avoid holiday hazards for your pet
Nothing makes a holiday more memorable than a panicked trip to the emergency room. Too often that's the final destination when a pet gobbles down a plate full of buffalo wings or chocolate cupcakes, nabs turkey legs off the table and crunches down on glass ornaments or electrical wires.
Stephanie Risvold of Irvine, Calif., won’t ever forget the year that her Lab mix, Cookie, swallowed 13 chicken hot wings in the minute or two that it took her to escort guests to the front door.
“We rushed her to the emergency clinic and got her X-rayed. That’s when we saw the ‘belly of bones,’” Risvold says. “All we could do was to have her X-rayed again and again to make sure the bones were dissolving and not causing a blockage. We had our vigil for a few days and Cookie was fine.”
During the holidays, pet owners fret over the dangers of their dog or cat chowing down bones, chocolate or even tree trimmings, but not all holiday pet hazards are equally worrisome. Here’s what you need to know to have an emergency-free celebration this season.
It’s the rare dog who is as polite as Donna Nelson’s 3-year-old Irish setter, Mack. Huffing and whining, he sat in front of her, asking to keep the turkey leg encased in his mouth.
“Being an unkind old schoolteacher, I scolded and took the leg from his mouth,” she says. “Being a dog lover, I gave him a dog treat instead. It might not have been great compensation for a turkey leg, but it was a much healthier choice.”
Linda Barton, a veterinarian who specializes in emergency and critical care at VCA Veterinary Specialty Center in Lynnwood, Wash., says everyone worries about pets eating tinsel and ornaments during the holidays, but the most common reason she sees pets in the ER are related to their appetite for festive or fatty foods such as turkey, gravy and chocolate.
Rich, fatty foods can cause an upset stomach and vomiting at best, and pancreatitis — a severe inflammation of the pancreas — at worst.
“It’s hard to look in a dog’s face and say no to giving him some of your Christmas dinner,” Barton says, “but probably any change from their regular diet puts them at some risk. I think the fattier it is, the more risky it is. So probably a little piece of dry turkey is less of a concern than the gravy.”
No bones about it
Bones can cause problems, but they’re generally less of a concern than people might think, says John Berg, DVM, a surgical specialist and professor at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Mass.
“Once a bone gets into the stomach, it gets softened, dissolved and digested pretty quickly. Really, the only place that we see bones cause a problem with any frequency is the esophagus, because if they get stuck in the esophagus, that can be a big, bad problem,” Berg says. “But if they get on down to the stomach, they usually are not a problem. The one kind of bone that we sometimes see cause problems is big, bulky, oddly shaped bones like beef vertebrae. Those have a tendency to get stuck in the esophagus.”
Nuts to chocolate?
JR, a 90-pound brindle boxer owned by Marg Taylor of Newport Beach, Calif., ate an entire one-pound can of solid dark chocolate pieces one Christmas.
“He didn’t even leave one for me,” Taylor says. “He just left the container, wrapping and bow under the tree.”
The canine nose can sniff out chocolate faster than you can say Jack Russell, but the sweet stuff contains a compound called theobromine that can be toxic to dogs, cats and parrots. Baker’s chocolate has the highest concentration of theobromine, Barton says. Milk chocolate in candy is not quite as potent because it’s adulterated with sugar and other ingredients.
How a pet reacts to chocolate depends on its size, as well as the amount and type of chocolate eaten. Vomiting and diarrhea are common signs of chocolate toxicosis, and too much chocolate can even be fatal, although that’s rare.
“A little dog eating baker’s chocolate is probably the worst combination,” Barton says.
In JR’s case, Taylor rushed him to the emergency room, assuming he was at death’s door, but the veterinarian on duty took one look at his wagging tail and said “He’s just too happy to be sick from the chocolate. Take him home and enjoy your Christmas.”
Bowls of nuts and nut-laden fruitcakes are also common holiday treats. If your dog gobbles the fruitcake (and really, who else is going to do it?) or pigs out on pecans, he may have an upset tummy, but it won’t necessarily require a trip to the ER. It could be another story, though, if the nut bowl contains macadamias, which can be toxic in large quantities.
“It takes a reasonably high concentration,” Dr. Barton says. “One macadamia nut wouldn’t hurt them; they’d have to eat a fair number.”
One very real concern is foods containing xylitol, an artificial sweetener often used in chewing gum and sugar-free foods.
“That’s one that absolutely needs to be avoided in pets,” Barton says. “They’ll get low blood sugar if they get a toxic dose and a small population of them will go into fatal liver failure.”
Trees and trimming
The first time Audrey Pavia put up a live Christmas tree, her gray tabby Murray proceeded to smack down every ornament within paw’s reach. He also thought it would be a good idea to snack on the silver spaghetti tinsel dangling from the tree.
“I saw him grab a mouthful of it off the tree while we were still hanging ornaments and quickly stuck my hand in his mouth, pulled all the tinsel out, and then spent the next hour removing all the tinsel from the tree while Murray was locked in the bathroom,” Pavia reports.
Tinsel and ribbons are known as linear foreign bodies in vet speak. Cats love to play with those items and they’ll sometimes swallow them, either intentionally or accidentally.
“They can cause a partial or complete obstruction, and if they get in there as a linear foreign body, they can saw right through the wall of the intestinal tract and cause peritonitis,” says John Hamil, DVM, of Canyon Animal Hospital in Laguna Beach, Calif.
If your cat has swallowed tinsel, string, thread or ribbons, don’t try to pull it out if it has already started down the throat, nor if you see it coming out the other end, Hamil warns. The same goes for string hooked around a cat’s tongue.
“Anybody that’s ever pulled a string through their fingers very quickly knows that it can cut you, so we don’t recommend that people try to do that from either end,” he says.
The lure of glass ornaments
Daleen and Keith Comer of Mission Viejo, Calif., learned the hard way that dogs and glass ornaments don’t mix. Their sable and white Shetland sheepdog, Duffy, who was 8 months old at the time, picked up a round glass ornament that had fallen on the floor, thinking it was a ball. It shattered in his mouth. They were able to pick most of the pieces out of his mouth, but one was too far back on his tongue and went down.
After that incident, they "threw away the glass balls and now buy only unbreakable ornaments,” she says.
Surprisingly, dogs eating glass ornaments isn’t as unusual or as dangerous as it might seem.
“Even if they chew glass, we just let it pass,” says Scott Shaw, DVM, assistant professor and emergency/critical care specialist at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Mass., whose own dog has been known to snack on glass ornaments. “Most dogs don’t actually swallow it. The biggest danger is they could cut their tongue or lip and have bleeding from that. If it was severe enough, you could end up having to make a trip to the vet.”
Although inducing vomiting worked for the Comers, Shaw says it’s best not to do that with glass, needles or anything else sharp.
“They could cause more damage coming up than they would if you just let them pass through the other way,” he says.
Electricity can light up more than your tree. If your pet chomps down on the cords, it could suffer mouth burns or even death from electrocution.
“Cats and puppies are probably the two biggest offenders,” Dr. Shaw says. “If you’re worried that your pet may have been electrocuted, even if they appear normal, they should be checked out because there can be some delayed signs that can be quite serious.”
To be on the safe side, encase cords in sturdy covers available from home and garden supply stores.
We’ve all heard that dogs and cats shouldn’t drink the water out of the tree stand. True, it’s probably not the best way for them to quench their thirst, but it’s unlikely to cause much more than a little stomach upset.
“If you put that tree extender stuff in the water, there’s a little bit of fertilizer and nitrates in it, but probably not at a concentration that would do much harm,” Barton says. “One of the biggest concerns is if the water’s been sitting around forever, it might be contaminated with bacteria and could probably cause gastrointestinal upset.”
Kissing under the mistletoe is a favorite holiday activity, but eating large quantities of mistletoe berries or leaves can be a kiss of distress for pets, causing oral or abdominal pain and sometimes cardiovascular problems such as low blood pressure for dogs and cats. Pretty red holly berries also have toxic properties that lead to stomach upset.
Poinsettias are widely thought to be toxic, but at most they cause mild irritation to the mouth or mild stomach upset, Barton says.
Unless your dog or cat has eaten a whole mistletoe ball, stripped the holly of all its berries or downed an entire poinsettia plant, you probably don’t have too much to worry about except for wiping away the drool and cleaning up after the vomiting or diarrhea. Serious poisoning from these types of plants is rare. Amaryllis and tulip bulbs, as well as lilies, are more of a worry. It’s not unusual for dogs to eat bulbs or for cats to nibble on lilies, and they can be quite toxic, Shaw says.
All the coming and going and to-ing and fro-ing bring opportunities for pets to get into trouble both indoors and outdoors. Visitors who aren’t used to living with dogs or cats may leave their medications within reach. It takes only seconds for dogs to break into those childproof containers and down birth control pills, heart medication or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Warn guests to keep those things well out of reach.
It’s also not uncommon for visitors to accidentally leave doors or gates open, giving Max or Snowflake the chance to flee the house with all its strange smells and people.
“It seems like a lot more dogs escape from the house this time of year,” Shaw says. “We see a lot of dogs that end up getting hit by a car because they get out.”
And if you’re traveling out of town with pets, be sure you have a full supply of any medications they are taking.
“We often see out-of-town people who suddenly need prescriptions filled,” Barton says.
And for those who like to dress their pets in Santa hats and reindeer antlers, good news: Unless your pet chews off and swallows the jingle bells, wearing a holiday costume will hurt only its pride.
Source: Kim Campbell Thornton, MSNBC.com Creature Comforts columnist
Updated: 8:03 p.m. ET Dec. 15, 2008
© 2008 MSNBC.com