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Keeping your animal family members safe during the holidays is important too. Photo by Mick Neufeld.

Watch for holiday dangers to family pets

While the holidays are a joyous time for many people, the extra hustle and bustle of large gatherings can make it easy for household pets to get into trouble unnoticed.

Many favourite traditions can actually pose a danger to your pets. By paying close attention to common holiday hazards, you can avoid spending Christmas day at the veterinary clinic.

Over the past year, senior veterinary students at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) have gathered information to help keep pets safe during the holidays. Their efforts are part of a wellness course taught by Drs. Jordan Woodsworth and Dr. Karen Sheehan, clinical associates at the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre. Based on their work, here are some helpful tips for pet owners.

Hold on to your hot toddies: While it's nice to enjoy an adult beverage during the holiday season, alcohol of any kind can irritate your pet's stomach or skin and can cause the animal to appear "drunk." About 30 to 60 minutes after a pet ingests alcohol, you might see signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, lack of co-ordination and difficulty breathing. Keep pets away from all alcohol – methanol can also be found in washer fluids and rubbing alcohol.

Keep the sweet tooth in check:

    • Chocolate: Pets metabolize chocolate differently than humans and even small amounts of chocolate can cause your pet to become sick. Chocolate can cause vomiting, diarrhea, a rapid heart rate and seizures. Dark chocolate is much more toxic to dogs than white chocolate, so be sure to tell your veterinarian what kind of chocolate and how much your animal has ingested.

    • Xylitol: Xylitol is an artificial sweetener found in gum, candies and in other sugar-free treats. Even small amounts of xylitol can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia in dogs. In larger doses, xylitol can cause liver failure and damage. You may see collapse, weakness, jaundice, and "tarry" stool.


Save the fruitcake for grandma: Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs and there is also evidence that this occurs in cats as well. The clinical signs are not necessarily dose-dependent and can occur even with very small amounts of ingested grapes or raisins.

Holiday (bread) baking hazards: Making fresh bread for Christmas? Keep your pet away from the dough. If your pet ingests raw bread dough made with yeast, the yeast may grow rapidly in the warm and moist environment of the animal's stomach. This can cause severe distension that affects breathing and blood flow in the body. Yeast fermentation can also release alcohol which can poison your pet.

Headache helpers: While you might need a dose of painkillers to dull that holiday migraine, make sure to keep common pain medications away from pets. Never give human pain medications to your dog or cat without consulting your veterinarian first.

    • Ibuprofen (Advil and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications): Cats and dogs that ingest ibuprofen can have stomach ulceration as well as kidney failure. You may see clinical signs such as vomiting, dark tarry stool, diarrhea and even seizures.

    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol): This human drug is particularly dangerous to cats. Even a single acetaminophen tablet can prove fatal in cats as they do not have the enzyme necessary to metabolize the drug like people do. Acetaminophen can also affect dogs: ingesting the medication can lead to liver failure and blood problems. Always consult your veterinarian if you think your pet has ingested a painkiller.


Butt out: If you or a party guest is a smoker or you're enjoying a once-a-year holiday cigar, make sure to keep it away from pets. Nicotine in cigarettes can cause your pet to salivate or vomit, cause diarrhea, a rapid heart rate, shallow breathing and cardiac arrest.  There are lots of products that contain nicotine besides cigarettes: don't forget about nicotine patches and gum.

More than just bad breath: While onions might make you cry, they can cause serious problems in pets. Onions and garlic are part of the Allium genus of flowering plants that also includes scallions, shallots, leeks and chives. Ingestion of these plants cause red blood cells to rupture in dogs and cats. Your pet may appear to be weak, have pale gums, vomit, have diarrhea and be lethargic.

Pretty to look at, not to eat: Lots of plants can be toxic to your pet. Always check with your veterinarian or pet poison helpline before putting a new plant in your house. Poinsettias, mistletoes, ornamental pepper, Christmas rose, baby's breath (found in many floral arrangements) and lilies are popular during the holidays, but all of these plants are toxic to pets.

Don't share that wishbone: Avoid giving bones to dogs or cats, particularly turkey bones. Poultry bones splinter easily and can cause serious injury, while bone fragments can cause intestinal blockages or lacerations.

Tinsel temptation: Having a Christmas tree and pets can make the holidays interesting. Ensure the tree is well secured and try to place the decorations above paw height. If possible, use non-breakable ornaments and avoid tinsel; cats and dogs may ingest these decorations, potentially risking intestinal damage and infection of the abdominal cavity. Cords for lights should be made inaccessible to pets, especially chewing puppies and exploring kittens.

If you suspect a pet has chewed or ingested something unusual, call a veterinarian immediately. Pet owners can also call the Animal Poison Control Center's Pet Poison Helpline at 1-800-213-6680 or visit the North American organization's website at www.petpoisonhelpline.com.
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