It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? The holidays are all about gathering together with loved ones (both two and four-legged), but the fast pace of the holidays can easily leave us feeling dazed – -as though we were hit by a train and 15lbs heavier overnight. As an emergency veterinarian, I work full time and have two young kids, as well as multiple pets. Managing to make it through a normal week alive is tough enough, let alone adding in the stress of this busiest time. But our waistlines, pocketbooks, and sanity are not the only potential casualties of this magical season. Our beloved dogs and cats are sadly all-too-often unintentional victims of this hectic time as well.
One of the most common problems emergency veterinarians face this time of year is what we respectfully call dietary indiscretion. Although this sounds like a fancy faux pas, it’s really just a nice way of saying “your dog got into something they really shouldn’t have…” Dietary indiscretion can happen when owners decide to generously gift their dog with tasty table scraps, or it could be a dog deciding he will help himself to food that is within muzzle’s reach while his owner is otherwise distracted. Results can vary between mild stomach and intestinal upset (vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite) to severe pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis can be a serious problem for your pet. Inflammation of the pancreas can occur secondary to eating fatty foods. Digestive enzymes are released abnormally and in some cases can cause severe inflammation of the pancreas and other surrounding organs, leading to abdominal pain, lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. A body-wide inflammatory response can result, which can include abnormal clotting ability and lung problems. Treatment can involve days of intensive care and monitoring, intravenous nutrition, and complications requiring surgery can develop. While not every dog who ingests people food will develop pancreatitis, it is best not to experiment with yours.
Dogs love bones, right? Yes, but their gastrointestinal tract often does not. Bones from a cooked carcass can splinter and irritate the stomach and intestines as they pass through. Rawhides and bully-sticks, while adorable with red ribbon attached and poking out from your dog’s Christmas stocking, do not make good presents, as they can cause choking and intestinal obstruction.
In addition, there are multiple human foods that are actually toxic to your pets. Many holiday sweet treats are baked with chocolate and cocoa and contain a chemical called methylxanthines (theobromine and caffeine) which are highly toxic to both dogs and cats. Theobromine is similar to the caffeine in chocolate and is present in varying amounts depending on the type of chocolate. As a general rule, the darker the chocolate, the more theobromine content. If consumed in enough quantities and not appropriately and promptly treated, chocolate ingestion can sadly result in death. Consumption of milk chocolate is not as concerning – although a smaller dog eating larger quantities can still experience the toxic effects. Further the risk of GI signs and pancreatitis exists with any chocolate consumption due to the fat content.
If your pet ever does ingest chocolate, contact your local emergency veterinarian or animal poison control for further recommendations. Treatment can include induction of vomiting if ingestion was recent, administration of activated charcoal to decrease further absorption of the toxin, treatment with IV fluids, anticonvulsant medication if seizures occur, and possibly antiarrhythmic medication for heart rhythm disturbances.
Another seemingly benign food which is actually scarily toxic and harmful to pets is bread dough. Dogs may be too tempted to ignore the dough when left to rise on the edge of a kitchen counter. Once it hits the nice warm environment of their stomach, it starts fermenting, thereby releasing ethanol. This release of ethanol causes alcohol poisoning, so if you suddenly notice that your dog is acting a lot like your favorite drunk uncle, you may want to check and see if the bread dough is missing off the counter. They may exhibit uncoordinated walking, seem depressed, and inappropriately vocalize. They will also potentially vomit, since as the dough expands, the stomach becomes stretched. This can become a serious problem, as the mass of expanded dough can cause stomach bloat, obstruction and even lead to twisting of the stomach, which requires surgery to correct. Cold water stomach pumping to stop the fermentation process and intensive supportive care for severe neurologic depression may be necessary.
And what about those raisins you were thinking of putting in that bread? Think again, or at least think twice about leaving the bread by the counter edge. Raisins, grapes, and even currants are known to cause acute kidney failure in dogs and cats. Any amount has the potential to be dangerous, as the dose considered to be toxic to the kidneys is unknown. Inducing vomiting and giving activated charcoal to help bind remaining toxin is indicated for recent ingestion, followed by aggressive IV fluid therapy for 48 hours to help “flush out” the kidneys.
Onions, a common ingredient in many savory holiday dishes, are also toxic to your pets. Ingestion can lead to destruction of red blood cells, causing anemia. Dogs or cats who have ingested onions or onion powder-containing foods may show signs of weakness, pale gums, red urine and vomiting. Blood transfusions may be needed to restore their red blood cell counts back to normal.
What about our feline friends? As much as they would like us to believe they are perfect living specimens, cats are not immune to their own potential holiday disasters. One of the big risks is the abundance of ribbon this time of year. Many cats love to bat or paw at the stuff and if they end up actually ingesting it, there is the potential for serious consequences. One end can get stuck while the rest is pulled into the intestines as they contract, leading to a bunching up of the intestines and causing an intestinal blockage. This is termed a linear foreign body obstruction and is a serious surgical emergency. If the intestines are compromised enough, your cat could even develop infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis) which is quite serious. Signs that your cat could be obstructed include vomiting, decreased appetite, lethargy, discomfort or fever. If you see string coming from either the front or back end of your cat, please don’t pull on it, as this could really make things worse. Instead, seek veterinary attention immediately.
Tinsel holds the same potential risk, which leads me to the possible dangers of the magical Christmas tree, or as many veterinarians think of it, “O Tannenbaum of Terror.” Just like some pets inexplicably love to drink toilet water, some will also be attracted by the fascination of Christmas tree water. This water may contain fertilizers or if stagnant can contain bacteria, and if ingested can both lead to stomach and/or intestinal upset. Glass ornaments if chewed and swallowed can cause severe irritation to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, so best to hang these on the higher branches out of temptation’s way. Try to also keep electric cords out of your pet’s reach. Biting through the cords will cause electric shock, which causes burns, trouble breathing, and possibly death. If your pet has chewed through a plugged-in cord, please have them evaluated immediately by a veterinarian, as treatment sooner rather than later is extremely important. Bubble lights pose another hazard—a chemical in the lights called methylene chloride (which bubbles when heated) can cause irritation to your pets eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract if chewed on.
Right next to your Christmas tree you may have your other holiday greenery and plants. The most dangerous are multiple types of lily flowers. Barely more than a small whiff of one of these is enough to put a cat in kidney failure. Poinsettias have long been the red-petaled stepchildren of the holidays plants, but have really gotten a bad rap. While their sap does have the potential to cause some irritation to your pet’s mouth and some mild stomach upset if eaten, it is not the evil toxic plant it has been hyped up to be in the past. Holly can also cause some mild to moderate GI signs, depending on the amount ingested, as well as mistletoe. Mistletoe has the potential to also cause some adverse heart effects, so feel free to kiss your pet under yours, but keep it out of chewing range.
Above all, holidays are a time to be thankful for all the wonderful joys of life, not the least of which are our canine and feline companions. Keep these special loved ones safe and remember to enjoy the special contribution they give to our lives. Happy Holidays!
Bio: Anna Hilton is a veterinarian who works in the emergency and critical care service at Hope Veterinary Specialists, a small animal 24-hour referral hospital in Malvern, PA. She lives in Wayne with her husband, two young daughters, and her 3 cats, Pippa, Percy and Dandelion, and her Labrador retriever-mix, Welly.