Veterinary Q&A: Holiday toxins that can hurt your pets

Seattle Times
Tails of Seattle Pets

December 22, 2011

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

During the holiday season, most veterinary hospitals receive an uptick in calls about pets ingesting a possible toxin. Dr. Joe Musielak, an emergency-care vet at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, pictured above with Basil, reviews some of the common concerns:

Poinsettia plants: Poinsettias contain toxic chemicals, but your pet must eat large amounts of the plant to produce symptoms.

The most common symptoms show up in the digestive system — vomiting, foaming at the mouth, drooling or diarrhea. In extremely high doses, the toxin can affect the heart.

As with any potential toxin, the dose is usually calculated on a dose/weight basis. For example, a smaller dog eating the same amount as a larger dog will ingest a greater amount of the toxin. However, there are limitations. Some smaller pets simply cannot physically ingest as much as a larger pet.

The good news is that poinsettias taste very bad, and most pets will not eat large amounts of them.

Of course, some dogs seem to have a tendency to eat anything regardless of taste, so it is better to be safe than sorry: Keep poinsettias out of reach of curious cats and non-picky pups.

Easter lilies:It recently was discovered that Easter lilies contain a substance that causes kidney failure in cats. This is a serious toxicity and life-threatening. You pet must be treated quickly and aggressively by a vet to avoid death. Just one or two petals or leaves — and even the pollen — can cause sudden kidney failure.

Christmas cactus, holly and holly berries: These can cause vomiting and diarrhea in dogs and cats. These usually aren't as dangerous as other plants, but why risk it?

Grapes and raisins:They are often used in holiday fruitcakes and stuffing. Ingestion can cause kidney failure in dogs and be life-threatening. Here again, prompt, aggressive treatment is necessary. IV fluids and hospitalization for several days are usually indicated.

Chocolate: It 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.

This is usually more of a problem in dogs because they are less discriminatory than cats are in what they eat. However, if you have that unusual cat that eats chocolate, the same risk applies.

If your dog eats chocolate, tell your veterinarian 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.

Macadamia nuts:If you are adding these to your brownies or cookies, caution is needed as well. In dogs, macadamia nuts can cause neurological symptoms, such as paralysis.

Substitute sugar: If you are freshening your breath with sugarless gum or mints, be sure your pet doesn't get a hold of any item containing xylitol. Used as a sugar substitute in many products, xylitol has a delayed effect on the liver (sometimes a week or two post-exposure). But it also can cause a more acute problem: life-threatening hypoglycemia, known as low blood sugar. This can lead to seizures and death, so treatment by your pet's veterinarian is very important.

Christmas tree preservatives:Most of the preservatives used in Christmas tree water are fairly benign. If you see a pet drinking the water around the base of the tree or eating the tree's needles, watch for vomiting, diarrhea or signs that your pet has stopped eating.

The list of common toxins found in most people's homes is extensive, and only a few are listed here. If you have concerns that your animal has been exposed to a toxin, call your veterinarian or the Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 immediately! Your pet has the best chance of surviving if treated as soon as possible.

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Dr. Joe Musielak

Musielak graduated from the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. After working in mixed practice for nine years, he became a staff veterinarian for Pilchuck's small animal emergency department in 2003, and has a special interest in transfusion medicine and surgery. Dr. Joe, as he prefers to be called, is an active member of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society. He lives with two dogs and three cats.