Holiday hazards

’Tis the season for food, family and festivities! Unfortunately, even our pets can overindulge and earn themselves a spot on the naughty list and a trip to the vet. Here are some tips to help you keep your furry family members healthy for the holidays.


Most people know that chocolate can be toxic to dogs. In general, darker chocolate is more toxic as it contains more cocoa but even milk chocolate can be deadly if enough is ingested. Depending on the dose, it can trigger vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity, heart arrhythmias, seizures and death. So be sure to move that bowl of chocolate kisses off of the coffee table.

Growing up, my family’s black lab loved to get into the garbage during the holidays. I guess you could say it was his cornucopia. Turkey carcasses have cooked bones that can splinter and puncture the esophagus and stomach, leading to narrowing of the esophagus or life threatening abdominal infections. All animal bones have the potential to get stuck in the back of the throat and cause choking. Eating scraps of fat and skin can trigger pancreatitis. Signs include a poor appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and treatment usually requires hospitalization. With treatment, most animals recover but many have relapses, and pancreatitis can be fatal. The bottom line is to be sure to keep the garbage secured or take it out.

Onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, ramps, scallions and chives are toxic to both dogs and cats. Even onion/garlic powder in food can be problematic. It can cause damage to red blood cells, resulting in a hemolytic anemia. Typically, the anemia is dose-dependent so small amounts shouldn’t be life-threatening but should still be avoided.

Macadamia nuts can cause hind-limb paralysis, stumbling and fever in dogs. While scary, this is temporary and not life-threatening. Other nuts have the potential to get stuck in the intestines and cause an obstruction if swallowed whole. 

Grapes and raisins can cause acute kidney failure in some dogs. The exact mechanism isn’t yet understood and there’s no way to determine which dogs are immune to their effects. Feeding grapes or raisins to your dog as a test is not recommended. So now you have a good excuse to re-gift that fruitcake and get it out of the house!


The plastic variety of mistletoe is more common nowadays, but the real plant, if ingested, can cause gastrointestinal irritation and, rarely, cardiac arrhythmias.

Most types of Christmas-tree needles can be problematic if ingested. The most common signs after ingestion of the needles are vomiting, anorexia, abdominal pain and depression.

Poinsettias can cause an upset stomach but, contrary to popular belief, cannot cause significant toxicity. The leaves are very bitter and after one bite, most dogs and cats lose interest. The poisonous poinsettia myth arose in 1919 after a toddler’s death was mistakenly attributed to eating poinsettia. There have been numerous studies over the years that have failed to find any toxic component, and there have been no other human or animal deaths reported.

Although they are more common around Easter, lilies can be found in holiday floral arrangements. All species of lily can cause acute kidney failure as well as GI upset in cats. All parts of the plant are toxic, including the pollen. I recommend keeping lilies out of any home with cats.

Other hazards          

Tinsel and ribbon are cat favorites, and can make for adorable photos. But they can become anchored under the tongue or in the stomach and cause vomiting, decreased appetite and abdominal pain. Without surgery, the foreign material eventually cuts through the intestines, resulting in a life-threatening abdominal infection. If you see your cat chewing on tinsel or ribbon, it’s best to take it away and put it out of reach.

Rock salt and other ice-melting products used on sidewalks can cause paw burns. When tracked indoors on shoes, ice melts can be ingested and cause oral burns. Common signs include excessive drooling, depression and vomiting. “Pet-friendly” de-icing products are safer but can still cause some skin irritation with prolonged contact or vomiting if swallowed.

Antifreeze has a sweet taste (or so I’ve heard) and can be appealing to animals. Even small doses of the active ingredient, ethylene glycol, can be extremely toxic to all mammals. Within 12 hours, animals appear inebriated, develop increased thirst and urination and can have seizures. Two to three days after ingestion, they develop depression, vomiting and acute, irreversible kidney failure as crystals form within the kidneys. Keep antifreeze locked up and don’t use it on sidewalks.

If you believe your pet has ingested a potential toxin, please call us at 215-627-5955 or call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435. The ASPCA has an extensive database of animal toxins. For a $65 fee, their toxicologists will consult with us to provide optimal treatment for your pet.

Have a safe and happy holiday season!


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


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