Keeping the joy in the holidays for our pets

It’s that time of the year, where families gather together to celebrate the fall and winter holidays. And of course, this includes our four-legged family as well! But, we need to remember that there are hazards present in our celebrations that can spell disaster for our furry friends.

Let’s look at some of the things that could cause trouble. Thanksgiving is the time where we gather together and stuff ourselves silly. For humans, this is a cause for celebration, but overindulgence can be detrimental for pets, causing a spectrum of issues from diarrhea to intestinal obstruction. In its most simple form, a dietary indiscretion, in which a pet consumes something that it ordinarily wouldn’t have access to, most commonly results in diarrhea. This is usually easily remedied with fasting and a bland diet, but you should always consult with your veterinarian if this occurs. However, if vomiting also occurs, this may indicate that a much more serious problem is occurring.

The consumption of bones, which are also usually present at the Thanksgiving meal, can be a leading cause of such problems. Bones can become stuck anywhere in the dog’s gastrointestinal tract, which will not allow food to flow past them. Cooked bones can also splinter, irritating the lining of the stomach and intestines, causing pain and discomfort. In addition, bones are also choking hazards, so it is best to avoid giving them to your four-legged friend.

Pancreatitis is also a concern during holiday times. Pancreatitis can often occur after eating fatty foods and is caused by inflammation of the pancreas and surrounding organs such as the liver. It results in abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy and decreased appetite. The treatment can require days of hospitalization and intravenous nutrition and can result in serious blood-clotting abnormalities, which may require blood products and even surgery. While not every dog who eats fatty foods will develop this problem, I wouldn’t try it out on yours.

Sweet desserts and candy can also be a problem with both dogs and cats. Many holiday foods have chocolate or cocoa baked or added to them. These foods contain two chemicals, Theo bromine and caffeine, which are toxic to both dogs and cats. The amount of these compounds present in the chocolate varies with the darkness of the chocolate, with the general rule that, the darker the chocolate, the more toxic it will be to your pet. If the chocolate is consumed in enough quantity and then not properly treated, the result can be seizures and, unfortunately, death. If your pet has consumed any chocolate, even milk chocolate, contact your veterinarian or ASPCA pet poison control (888-426-4435). Many times, treatment will include inducing vomiting if the exposure was recent, using activated charcoal to bind up the toxins present in the gastrointestinal tract, IV-fluid administration, or anticonvulsant medication if seizures are present, along with hospitalization. Many people will bake their own bread this season, which also is another potential hazard. Bread dough contains yeast, which undergoes fermentation. When your dog eats bread dough, it begins fermentation in the warm environs of his stomach. One of the byproducts of this process is ethanol. In effect, this ethanol produces alcohol poisoning in your dog! They may show signs of uncoordinated walking, stuperous behavior and unusual vocalization. In addition, the dough will rise and may stretch the stomach walls, leading to bloat and potentially twisting the stomach, which may require emergency surgery to correct. The initial treatment for dough consumption would be cold-water stomach pumping to stop fermentation and hospital support if severe neurologic depression occurs.

Two other common ingredients present in our holiday foods may also cause severe toxic effects. Grapes and raisins seem harmless, but in reality may have detrimental effects. Both are known to cause severe kidney failure in dogs and cats. Any amount may cause this to happen, as the toxic dose is unknown at this time. Signs of kidney failure include lethargy, inappetence and either failure to produce urine or increased urine production, and the condition can be fatal. Treatment would involve intensive care, and the best way to prevent it is to avoid your pets’ contact with these fruits all together. And how about onions? Ingestion of onions, either raw or cooked, can cause destruction of red blood cells and subsequent anemia, which can often be life-threatening. Signs of onion anemia include weakness, pale gums and possibly red urine. Treatment may require blood transfusions and hospitalization. Please call your veterinarian immediately if your pet eats any of these foods.

Plants are another potential cause for holiday distress. Poinsettias have traditionally been given a bad reputation, but in reality they do not cause much concern. It is true that the sap present in the stalks and leaves is an irritant, but it really only causes minor distress unless eaten in large quantities. Holly can also cause some mild gastrointestinal problems, such as vomiting and diarrhea. Mistletoe, on the other hand, can cause significant adverse heart effects, so keep this out of reach of your pets.

And one final hazard that primarily pertains to our feline friends: There is usually an abundance of ribbon during this time of year. Cats are particularly attracted to these dangling strips of fun! However, if they are eaten, they can lead to a serious condition known as a linear foreign body. When this happens, one end of the ribbon gets stuck at one end of the intestinal tract while the other is trying to push it out. This leads to bunching of the intestine and no movement of food or other ingest. This leads to a blockage of the intestine, which has serious consequences. Cats with linear foreign bodies vomit, are depressed and tend not to eat. Treatment requires intestinal surgery to remove the ribbon or string.

Remember, the holidays are a time for all our friends to gather together, and that includes our furry ones as well, so let’s keep them safe!

Dr. Stephen Meister is an associate veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, visit or call 215-627-5955.

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