Holiday hoopla poses plethora of pet pitfalls

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2002

The holidays are a magical part of the year that allow people to spend extra time with family and loved ones, but they also can create special dangers for pets.

It's important to keep in mind a few tips to ensure that four-legged family members and feathered friends stay safe and healthy during the winter holidays.

Christmas trees pose a number of hazards to the family pet. Some dogs enjoy tugging on the branches, which can cause the tree to fall over. Other times a tree can be knocked down from pets exuberantly playing or chasing each other around the house. Curious cats will often attempt to climb trees, which can send a tree crashing to the ground.

A falling tree can cause injuries to humans and pets alike, as well as significant damage to tree ornaments, holiday decorations and whatever else is under it when it comes down.

Pet owners should secure the top of their tree to the ceiling or a wall using a cord or other strong material.

It's important to keep up with cleaning any needles that drop. When ingested, pine needles from the tree can puncture a pet's intestines. Balsam, juniper, cedar, pine and fir can also be toxic to pets when they're chewed or eaten.

Many people use preservatives or aspirin in the water for their tree, but even without additives drinking the water from the tree stand can on occasion cause illness or blister-type sores and ulcers around the mouth. Using a skirt around the stand is advisable to keep pets away.

Cats are always fascinated by tinsel and angel hair. The way it sparkles and flutters makes it irresistible to many felines.

"Tinsel is always a big concern during the holidays," Dr. Tabitha Perkovich of Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic said. "When ingested, tinsel can bind up in their intestinal tract and cause an obstruction or blockage."

Ornaments and decorations in general are a big concern. Many are breakable or come with small hooks, ribbons, and rubber bands that can be fatal if swallowed. Ribbons and yarn should never be put around a pet's neck. Holiday lights can also be quite tempting "chew toys" for pets. Electrical cords should be covered or taped down to prevent shocks, burns, and more serious injuries.

In addition to the hazards posed from trees, special care should be taken with festive plants and plant decorations. Sprucing up the house with bright red poinsettias is common for many people, but these plants can be toxic if ingested by animals.

"A lot of plants can be toxic," said Dr. Perkovich. Many people think it's just Christmas plants that can cause problems, but there are many to watch out for. She suggested to "put them out of reach" like you would do for a small child. Holly and hibiscus also pose a threat, and mistletoe is particularly dangerous. As with trees, it's important to keep up the cleaning with any leaves, berries, or needles that fall off.

As usual, Dr. Perkovich expects a fair number of emergency calls this holiday season. "The biggest number of cases we see (during the holidays) are animals ill from too much human food," she said.

Many people, or their guests, offer table scraps to their pets. On a small scale this may not be a problem, but too much can lead to trouble. Bones should never be given to pets; this includes ham, steak or poultry.

Alcohol is a big "no-no" for pets. It may seem like a fun thing to do, but the effects can be fatal.

Candy and cookies can also be harmful and pets may often try to help themselves to peppermint canes or chocolate snacks when their owners aren't looking. Chocolate contains theobromine, a caffeine like substance that acts like a stimulant and can be deadly when ingested by animals.

"Chocolates are very bad for pets," said Dr. Perkovich. "Especially baking chocolates that are more concentrated."

Signs of sickness in animals that may have ingested toxic substances include, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, rapid or irregular heartbeats, tremors, lethargy or coma. These signs can be a preliminary indication of trouble and pets displaying any of these signs should be taken to a veterinarian immediately.

The increased activity and high frequency of visitors stopping by during the holiday season can disturb a pet's routine. Upset pets can act odd in a number of ways. Some may stop eating, or begin defecating in the house. Others can become jealous and aggressive, especially those unfamiliar with children that may visit with their parents.

Tranquilizers and boarding pets are always options, but it's better to give pets a place to withdraw and feel safe while continuing to give them lots of attention and love so they don't feel left out. If pets are boarded, be sure to check out all facilities well in advance to be certain they are clean and reputable. Many book up fast during the holidays so check for vacancies early and make certain pets are up to date on all vaccines.

High stress levels can accelerate dehydration, so be sure to keep water bowls filled. Automatic feeding and watering devices can come in handy at this time of year.

Birds may become stressed by holiday excitement much easier than most cats and dogs. Keep them out of noisy, smoky and drafty rooms where doors may be opening frequently allowing cold air to come in.

Since doors will be opening frequently, the holidays are a common time for pets to be lost. They can slip out in all the commotion and go unnoticed until it's too late. Keep up to date ID tags on pets throughout the holidays even if they're not used for the majority of the year. If a pet isn't microchipped, the holidays may be a good time to have the procedure done.

Whether staying home alone, hosting family and friends, or traveling to see loved ones, pets can be included in the holiday celebration. Following these basic safety tips can lend to a holiday season that is filled with happiness instead of hazards.

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