Elisa Shackleton: Keeping pets safe during the holidays

Extension connection

The holidays bring excitement and commotion, during which beloved pets may be exposed to hazards less commonly found during other times of the year.

As homes fill with holiday spirit, pets may be intrigued by the new sights, smells and tastes. Paul Chauvin of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University shared the following information about the most common health concerns for your pet during the holidays:

Curious pets may eat just about anything.

Tinsel, ribbon and other pretty things

Although the sight of your cat pawing at the tree may be cute, the ingestion of tinsel can be deadly. Eating tinsel or other string-like items such as ribbon can cause serious damage to the intestine.

One end can get stuck while the rest is pulled into the intestine as it contracts; the contractions may cause the ribbon or tinsel to saw through the intestine. If not caught in time, infection of the belly cavity develops and the prognosis for recovery becomes poor.

Pets with linear foreign bodies quickly become ill with signs including vomiting, diarrhea, depression, belly pain and sometimes fever.

Eating other holiday decorations can cause signs ranging from mild depression to severe vomiting or diarrhea, depending upon whether the foreign matter can be passed in the stool or gets stuck along the way.

Foreign matter stuck in the intestine often does not show up on an X-ray, but sometimes the foreign matter will trap air in the intestine, which helps your veterinarian make a diagnosis. Surgery is required to remove foreign matter that does not pass out on its own.


Lights can cause burns and electrocution

Decorative lights are another attraction for pets to chew on.

Indoor and outdoor lights should be carefully examined to ensure safety for your household pets. Electrical shock may occur from defective cords, as well as from pets chewing on cords. Check cords for any signs of bite marks, loose or frayed wires, proximity to the tree's water supply or evidence of short circuits. Use grounded three-prong extension cords and strictly follow manufacturer's guidelines for light usage. Electrical shock can cause burns, difficulty breathing, abnormal heart rhythm, loss of consciousness and death.

Call a veterinarian immediately if your pet has been injured by electrical shock. Treatment will be most effective if begun soon after the shock.


Pets like to try

new water sources

Even though they have their own water bowl, there is something enticing about a novel source of water; whether it's the toilet bowl or the Christmas tree stand. If you add chemicals to the water meant to keep your tree fresh longer, be sure to read the label to make sure it is safe for pets.

Avoid overindulging your pet with treats

Well-intentioned family and friends may share holiday foods with pets, causing the pet to develop a stomach upset or worse, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), which can be caused by eating fatty foods.

To control excessive food intake by your pets and meet your guests' desires to feed the pets, dole out the treats your pets would normally receive and let your guests "treat" the pets.

If you want to get festive, mix some of your pet's regular food with water to make a dough and roll out and cut into festive shapes, then bake until crunchy.

Chocolate can be

poisonous to dogs, cats

What would the holidays be without boxes of chocolate and warm cocoa in front of the fire?

However, chocolate can be toxic or even fatal to dogs and cats. Chocolate may be mistakenly given to pets as treats and may be irresistible to the curious canine. Chocolate poisoning occurs most frequently in dogs, but other species also are susceptible. Theobromine is the toxic compound found in chocolate. Signs that may appear within one to four hours of eating chocolate include vomiting, increased thirst, diarrhea, weakness, difficulty keeping balance, hyperexcitability, muscle spasms, seizures, coma, or death from abnormal heart rhythm.

The toxicity of chocolate depends on the amount and type of chocolate ingested. For example, 5 ounces of baking chocolate, 3 ounces of unsweetened cocoa, 7 ounces of semisweet chocolate or 20 ounes of milk chocolate are potentially toxic to a 44-pound dog. As with any poisoning, call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary hospital immediately if you suspect your pet may have ingested chocolate.

Have the product label information available when you call your veterinarian. There are national and regional poison control hotlines for animals. In general, the treatment of poisonings is most effective if begun soon after eating the poison, before large amounts are absorbed into the blood.


Poinsettias and

mistletoe can be toxic

Poinsettias fill homes with color during the holidays. Poinsettias have received bad publicity in the past whereas in fact, poinsettias are not very toxic to pets. They do contain a milky sap that can irritate the mouth but if signs develop they are usually mild.

Mistletoe can be very toxic to animals, and you should seek veterinary consultation immediately if your pet has potentially ingested any part of the plant. Mistletoe can cause vomiting, severe diarrhea, difficult breathing, shock and death within hours of ingestion.

Many species of Holly (genus Ilex) berries and leaves can be a problem, although signs of poisonings are generally mild, and include vomiting, belly pain, and diarrhea.

A few cold weather

tips for outdoor pets

If you opt not to bring your pet inside during the winter, make certain its shelter is clean, dry and well insulated with straw, wood shavings or a blanket.

Animals drag a lot of moisture onto their bedding from every trip outside in snow. Plan on changing the bedding as frequently as necessary or simply placing it in the dryer for a warm-up.

Equally critical, position the opening, which should have a door flap, away from the direction in which snow and wind usually comes.

Pets that move about on sidewalks, driveways or streets run the risk of picking up rock salt, ice and other chemicals in their foot pads. Each time they are brought in, make certain to wipe all four feet thoroughly. There is a tendency for them to lick the salt off their feet, which can cause an inflammation of the digestive tract.

Be particularly careful when escorting elderly, arthritic pets outside. They can become stiff and tender quickly, and may find it difficult to move about in the snow or ice. Keep them tethered tightly to your side if the route to the yard is icy. A bad slip can cause a ruptured disc, broken leg, or other major injury.

For additional information, visit the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine website at http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/ClientED/holiday.asp or contact Elisa at the CSU Moffat County Extension Office, 824-9180.

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