Keeping Your Home Safe for Your Pets During the Holidays
Peter S. Sakas DVM, MS
Niles Animal Hospital and Bird Medical Center
7278.N. Milwaukee Ave. Niles, IL 60714
(847) 647-9325 FAX (847) 647-8498
The holidays are joyous and active times for people and their pets. Our pets partake in many of the seasonal festivities with us which makes the holidays that much more special. However, many of the decorations and objects we have around the household during the holidays may be dangerous to our pets. By taking a few precautions, we can make this wonderful time of year a safe one for our pets.
Food is a very important aspect of our holiday celebrations as many human waistlines can attest. Unfortunately, many of these foods can cause serious problems in our pets and as any veterinarian will tell you, this is the time of year that we see numerous gastrointestinal problems in pets.
Food Preparation -The preparation of food can be a problem, especially for pet birds. Birds have a very effective respiratory tract and coupled with their relatively small size are susceptible to toxic elements in the air. During cooking if food burns or smoke is produced, any birds nearby the kitchen could be at risk of fatal smoke inhalation. If non-stick cookware is used there is another risk for pet birds. Under normal cooking conditions, the cookware is safe but if polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) coated products (such as Teflon, Silverstone, and Supra) are overheated (over 530 degrees F), they can emit toxic fumes which are fatal to birds. PTFE coated drip pans achieve high temperatures under normal usage so they should not be used around birds at all. If your bird has been exposed to smoke or fumes get them to an area of good ventilation and seek veterinary care.
Holiday Food/Leftovers -Avoid the temptation to feed your pets leftovers from your holiday meals. Many of these foods are rich; especially those that are high in fat, and can often cause severe gastrointestinal disturbances in pets which could prove fatal. Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) is a very common disease of dogs and is frequently caused by the eating of table scraps. The pancreas plays a role in digestion of food but when an animal eats a rich or fatty meal, the pancreas is ‘overstimulated’ and the organ oversecretes enzymes leading to inflammation of the pancreas and surrounding tissues. Signs of pancreatitis include vomiting and abdominal pain, sometimes quite severe. The condition is very uncomfortable for the pet and sometimes can be fatal. If you notice these type of symptoms seek veterinary care.
Be cautious with any bones provided to your pet. Sharp bones, especially from chicken or turkey, may become lodged in the mouth or throat of your pet. If the bones move further into the digestive tract, there is a risk that the bones could perforate the stomach or intestines. This situation may require surgical removal and if they do not receive veterinary attention, they may die. Provide your .pet with commercial chew toys to avoid any potential problems.
Be cautious with guacamole around pet birds. Most bird owners know that avocado is extremely toxic for birds and severe reactions can lead to death. However, some people forget that avocado is the key ingredient in guacamole. When you are having holiday parties and with all kinds of appetizers available, such as chips and dips, be careful if there is guacamole around with your pet birds present. They may decide to sample some of the dip, or an unknowing houseguest may innocently provide a taste of the dip to one of the birds with potentially tragic results.
Chocolate – Providing a piece of chocolate to a pet may seem like an act of kindness but there is a risk that this treat could have serious consequences. Chocolate may be fatal to your pet, especially dogs, because they are sensitive to theobromine, a compound in chocolate. Dark chocolate has the highest levels of theobromine. It may cause vomiting, diarrhea, heart irregularities, muscle tremors, seizures and coma, sometimes with fatal results. Cats are rarely poisoned due to their more ‘discriminating’ habits. Keep those chocolate goodies out of the reach of your dog. If your dog accidentally eats some chocolate, seek veterinary care immediately.
The Christmas Tree
Decorations go up once a year and for a brief period of time. Your pets will be very interested in new and unusual objects scattered around the house believing that these are special ‘toys’ for their own use. Often these playthings end up lodged in the intestinal tract causing a blockage. Many dangers lurk on the Christmas tree. Overzealous dogs or cats have felled numerous wonderfully decorated trees. Support the tree securely with a sturdy stand and wires.
The Tree -There are several factors to consider with the tree. The trunk of a live tree is often coated with chemicals, such as fertilizer or insecticide. When the tree is placed in the stand and watered, the chemicals from the trunk contaminate the water. If your bird, dog or cat drinks it, they may become sick. The needles begin to fall out as the tree ages and dries. The needles are not poisonous but are very sharp, can puncture the skin and produce abscesses. If your pet tries to eat them, the needles can cut the tongue, lips and gums. If swallowed they are relatively undigestible and can actually pierce the lining of the stomach and intestines or cause a blockage.
The branches from artificial trees can be easily pulled out. The artificial needles can be sharp and are always non-digestible. If you pet chews on the branches, they might take in some of the needles. Just like the needles from the live tree, they can cause gastrointestinal problems such as bleeding and blockage.
Lights -The lights pose many dangers. They often get very hot after being on for a while and could burn your pet if they are touched. For some strange reason pets seem attracted to wires and like to chew on them. So keep a watch on your pets for this type of activity and check the lower strings of lights for evidence of chewing. You might want to ‘pet proof’ the tree by keeping objects, such as lights and ornaments, at heights that your pets cannot reach. If you want lights all over the tree, then string them on the lower branches, but place them away from the tip of the branches. The pets will have a more difficult time reaching them if they are placed on the inner portion of the branches.
Electrical Cords -Electrical cords often seem delectable to many pets, especially cats and young puppies. Chewed cords can cause severe burns and sometimes fatal, electrical shocks. If your pet seems overly interested in electrical cords, string or tape them in a position that is inaccessible to your pet. If that does not work you can cover the cords with hot pepper sauce or use bitter tasting commercial products sold in most pet stores.
Ornaments -Avoid using glass ornaments around pets. They are fragile, break easily and the shattered pieces are sharp. If any of the pieces are swallowed, the glass can puncture the intestines, which could lead to peritonitis and possibly death. Ornament hooks are also very sharp. They can be picked up and swallowed, resulting in gastrointestinal problems such as obstructions and punctures.
Be cautious with ‘edible’ type ornaments. Sometimes the store-bought varieties may not be edible and contain hardening agents/preservatives that could be toxic. If you make your own edible ornaments, your pet may try to eat them. They may knock over the tree trying to get a string of homemade popcorn or a gingerbread ornament.
The safest ornaments are one-piece, non-breakable and made of non-toxic material. They should be too big to swallow. Also, have them out of the reach of curious beaks, mouths and paws.
Tinsel -One of the most dangerous materials to put on a Christmas tree is tinsel. Animals are attracted to its bright finish and flexibility. Cats are especially attracted to tinsel and if you have a cat, it is recommended that you do not use tinsel on your tree. If your pet eats tinsel, there is a good chance that it will become wrapped around the tongue. As the pet struggles to remove it, the tinsel gets stretched out and wraps even tighter. It can cut sensitive tissues in the mouth and stop the circulation of blood to the tongue. If a strand is swallowed it can bunch up and block the intestine. If this occurs, surgery is usually required to remove it. The best advice is, if you have pets, do not place tinsel on your tree. You may lose the aesthetics of the icicle effect, but your pets will be much safer.
Many people place decorations throughout the house including lights, evergreen branches, holiday knickknacks and other assorted objects to provide a festive environment. We have discussed some of these dangers previously. Lit candles can burn a curious pet or could be knocked over and start a fire. Centerpieces of dangling streamers and feather fronds are enticing to the curious pet. If chewed and swallowed, these materials can cause an intestinal blockage. Icicles and tinsel draped on a mantle are as dangerous as tinsel on a tree. Monitor your pets and watch out for any evidence of chewing on these objects.
Wrapped presents can pose a hazard to pets. They are attracted to the decorative bows, ribbons and other frills placed on the packages. If your pet would chew and swallow these materials, there is a risk of intestinal blockage. Food packages wrapped as gifts and left under a tree can entice a hungry animal. With their keen sense of smell they can sniff these out and decide to have a feast. Exercise caution with these types of presents around pets, especially dogs.
Many homes are decorated each year during the holiday season with poinsettias and mistletoe. These plants do represent the season; unfortunately they are toxic for our pets and represent a problem for curious dogs, cats and birds. Poinsettias produce a milky sap that is irritating to the skin and eyes on contact and to the gastrointestinal tract if eaten. It may cause irritation and blistering of the mucous membranes of the mouth and stomach. Intake of large amounts of mistletoe may cause nausea, vomiting and gastroenteritis. Make sure that these plants are kept out of the reach of your pets. If you do catch you pet eating a poinsettia or a few loose mistletoe berries, seek veterinary care immediately.
Relieve Pet Stress during the Holidays
The holidays are stressful times for all of us. The commotion in decorating, purchasing gifts and entertaining friends/relatives can be overwhelming to many people. Our homes can be filled with people, especially young children. Many pets, even if not aggressive or territorial, are stressed by the increased numbers of strangers ‘intruding’ in their domain. The high activity level of children can be a new and stressful experience for many pets unaccustomed to this behavior. Birds can become especially upset during the holidays, particularly the larger varieties of birds. Routine is very important to birds and if that routine changes, they can become frustrated and engage in abnormal behavior. These types of behavior include, aggressiveness, screaming, biting or development of vices such as the picking off or chewing of their own feathers in frustration, which if allowed to continue can become a habit.
If possible, try to provide your pets with a consistent level of interaction with you so they do not feel left out. This is especially important with parrots. Try not to let the pandemonium of the holidays lead to stress in your pets. If you feel that your pets are uncomfortable around new people, it may be best to separate them from the holiday activity. Provide your pets with an area where they can ‘get away from it all’ and be alone. Cats may enjoy an intricate ‘kitty condo’ set up or even a cardboard box or paper bags in which to hide. For pet birds that are nervous, you might have to place the cage in a quiet room or, if that is impossible, partially or completely cover the cage so that the bird has the ability to ‘hide.’ Make sure that your young guests understand that they must let the animals rest when they are put in their area of ‘refuge.
I hope that this discussion will assist you in keeping your home safe for your pets during the holidays. During all the activity, we must not forget the welfare of our pets and our responsibility to keep them free of danger. If you practice the proper preventative measures, the holiday season for your pet will be as happy as it is for you and your family.
The preceding discussion was garnered from several excellent sources including:
Your Healthy Pet by Amy Marder
A Dog for All Seasons by Jane Leon