Holiday Hazards for Dogs and Cats

By Joe Musielak, DVM, Pilchuck’s Small-Animal Emergency Department    

santa-dogDuring the holiday season, most veterinary hospitals receive an increased number of calls regarding toxin ingestion by pets. Here, we’ll review some of the most common concerns:

Many calls center on the poinsettia plant. Poinsettias do contain toxic chemicals, but your pet must eat large amounts of the plant to show symptoms. The most common symptoms are related to the digestive system and show up as vomiting, foaming or drooling, or diarrhea. At extremely high doses, you can see toxic effects on the heart. The good news is that poinsettias taste very bad, and most pets will not eat large amounts of them. Of course, some dog breeds seem to have a tendency to eat anything regardless of taste, so better safe than sorry: Keep poinsettias out of reach of curious cats and non-picky pups.

Easter lilies contain a substance that causes kidney failure in cats. This is a serious toxicity and must be treated quickly and aggressively to avoid death. Just one or two petals or leaves, and even the pollen, can cause sudden kidney failure.

Other plants to watch out for include the Christmas cactus (can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs and cats), along with holly and holly berries. These usually aren’t as dangerous as other plants, but why risk it?

Grapes and raisins – found in some fruitcakes and stuffings – can cause kidney failure in dogs. Again, prompt, aggressive treatment is necessary.

Chocolate is a year-round hazard, but most people do more baking around the holidays. Chocolate desserts (including hot cocoa) can cause hyperactivity, vomiting and diarrhea, and death in severe cases. In case of chocolate ingestion, inform your veterinarian of how much your dog weighs, and how much chocolate (in ounces) and what kind (dark, milk, etc.) was ingested. White chocolate does not contain the toxic substance, but semisweet, milk and dark chocolate do. If you are adding macadamia nuts to your brownies, caution is needed here as well! In dogs, macadamia nuts can cause neurological symptoms, including paralysis (usually temporary).

If you are freshening your breath with sugarless gum or mints, be sure your furry friend doesn’t get hold of any item containing xylitol. Used as a sugar substitute in many products, xylitol has a delayed liver effect (sometimes a week or two post-exposure) but also a more acute problem: causing life-threatening hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can lead to seizures and death.

Most preservatives used in Christmas tree water are fairly benign. If we do see signs – either from a pet drinking the water around the base of the tree or from eating the tree’s needles – they include vomiting, diarrhea or inappetance.

The list of common toxins found in most people’s homes is rather extensive, and only a few are listed here. If you have concerns your animal has been exposed to a toxin, do not wait to see if your pet shows symptoms. Call your veterinarian or the Animal Poison Control Center at 888.426.4435 immediately! Your pet has the best chance of surviving a poison if treated as soon as possible.

As a related reminder, vehicular trauma cases (pets hit by cars) always seem to increase around the holidays. Be especially careful as you are rushing around doing errands, and make house guests and visitors aware of pets that might try to escape through open doors.

Small-animal appointments: 360.568.3113. 24/7 emergency care: 360.568.9111. Located at 11308 92nd Street SE, Snohomish.  

Page updated November 2, 2013.