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Pet Holiday Safety Article – Unabridged

J.C.Hardin, DVM

Palmetto Regional Emergency Hospital for Animals

It’s that time of year when everyone is focused on family and being together.   Help ensure this holiday season is safe for your furry family members as well!   The following is not an exhaustive list of every hazard your pet may encounter but will help you prevent some of the more common issues we see as reasons for pets to visit our emergency room. 

1.  Tinsel / ribbon – Cats especially love to play with stringy things.  The ‘spines’ on their tongues are great for combing hair but not so great for letting them dislodge material that is ingested.  Cats will chew playfully on one end of a strand of tinsel or ribbon, then be unable to spit it back out.  When swallowed, these materials cause a ‘linear foreign body’ in the intestines, which cause the intestines to ‘plicate’ along the length of the strand, like the top of a curtain on a curtain rod.    During surgery, many of these cats (and dogs) are found to have numerous small holes along the ‘mesenteric border’ of the intestine (the inner periphery, where the blood supply attaches along the bowel), where the strand has been pulled taut within the intestine and caused a sawing effect from the inside out.  These holes cause stool to leak into the abdomen, leading to septic peritonitis.  Septic peritonitis is usually fatal, unless extensive surgery with prolonged hospitalization / intensive care can be provided in time.   It is important not to pull too hard on any end of ribbon or tinsel you see protruding from your pet’s mouth or anus as chances are good that the material is long, and likely well secured deep in the intestine.  Pulling on one end might only make things worse.   To save your pet a trip to the ER, refrain from putting tinsel on the tree this year, and avoid having ribbon lying around.

2.  Chocolate   - Though we see dogs with chocolate ingestion frequently, most of the time they develop only vomiting, diarrhea, and some hyperactivity.   Theobromine and fat are the primary concerns with chocolate.   Dark and semisweet chocolate have the highest concentrations of theobromine, which can lead to symptoms such as tremors, seizures, and abnormal heart rhythms in severe cases.   Typically, we induce vomiting in these patients with apomorphine, then give activated charcoal as an adsorbent.   Sometimes heart monitoring with an EKG, IV fluids, and hospitalization are needed.   Pancreatitis can also occur with chocolate ingestion, requiring a longer hospital stay and insulin treatments if diabetes occurs secondarily. See more about pancreatitis in the ‘ingestion of fatty foods’ section below. 

Milk chocolate contains 44 mg of theobromine per ounce.  Semisweet chocolate has 150 mg per ounce, and baking chocolate has 390 mg per ounce.  Signs of toxicosis can occur at 9 mg of theobromine per pound of body weight.   It may take four days with IV fluids and other care for toxic effects of theobromine to resolve.   

3.  NutsMacadamia nuts especially are known to cause symptoms such as muscle weakness, tremors (with elevated temperature) and mental depression that can last three days or so.  

Walnuts are not generally dangerous, unless they get moldy – roquefortine is a tremorogenic mycotoxin that can cause serious illness and death.  These patients often present with uncontrollable shaking, though they are often mentally alert.  Other substances can grow tremorogens as well, such as compost.  
 

Black walnuts contain the toxin Juglone which can cause lethargy in dogs. 

4.  Fatty leftovers – Again the risk here is pancreatitis, primarily for dogs.   Pancreatitis is one of the most common problems veterinarians see around the holidays.   The pancreas not only secretes insulin and glucagon, but digestive enzymes as well.  When overstimulated with fatty foods, the gland basically tries to digest itself.  This leads to vomiting and sometimes severe pain, and other issues that require intensive care for at least a few days.  Pancreatitis is always a severe condition.   Secondary diabetes can occur and should be monitored for during your pet’s hospital stay.   IV fluids are essential.  Often, pain control is needed.  Heparin and plasma transfusions are sometimes needed as patients can develop shock and clotting disorders with pancreatitis.  Occasionally we have had to perform surgery as abscesses of the pancreas sometimes develop.  Antibiotics are not always recommended with pancreatitis, but might be depending on your pet’s temperature and white blood cell count.   

5.  Christmas Plants – Visit www.aspca.org for a more exhaustive list of toxic plants.  

            Christmas Lily, like any plant in the Lily family, is very toxic to cats, causing acute kidney failure.  Even the pollen is dangerous.

            Poinsettias, Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera), and Holly are primarily GI irritants.    Unless ingested in large quantities, your pet will likely need only symptomatic care – and your carpets may need Stanley Steemer!  

            Mistletoe (Phoradendron)  can be cardiotoxic (poisonous to the heart).              

6.  Antifreeze / ethylene glycol -  We can’t miss an opportunity to warn pet parents about the dangers of antifreeze!  If you know your pet has ingested some, time is of the essence.  Get to a veterinarian immediately.   Our ER stocks a specific antidote for ethylene glycol that is administered four times over two days, along with IV fluids.  Treatment effectiveness depends on how quickly treatment can be started after a known ingestion.   Signs of antifreeze ingestion (ataxia, etc.) can mimic other problems and testing is not always conclusive.  If in doubt, play it safe and authorize the treatment for your pet.   Follow up tests to assess kidney health will be needed during your pet’s hospital stay. 

7.  Batteries and other small parts  -  Just use common sense here – in ‘child proofing’ your home you make it pet safe as well.  Put up small batteries and other small items that could be ingested and cause an obstruction.  Batteries are caustic to the GI tract and often require surgery to retrieve.   Small magnets and zinc pennies are also hazards that usually require surgery once ingested.   Electrocutions (leading to fluid in the lungs among other problems) and oral burns can occur from pets chewing on electrical cords, so keep an eye on those puppies. 

8.  Lost pets – With all the people coming and going in your house over the holidays, pets might find a way to escape more easily.   Be sure all your pets have a microchip implanted.  But just as importantly, be sure each pet is registered with the company that made the microchip

            Doing this cuts out the ‘middle man’ when you’re trying to get your pet back.   If a lost pet is found, when the microchip is scanned, the company will call the last place they have on record as owning the chip.  Usually, this is the shelter or vet clinic who bought the chip from the company.  If the shelter or clinic is closed for a weekend or holiday, there will be that much more delay in getting you reunited with your pet.  But if you have registered with the manufacturer directly, they will call you directly.     

            Also, have a recent digital photo of your pet in case you have to make posters.  We will post your lost pet’s picture on our Facebook page and websites if you email the information to us ([email protected] or just go through either website).  Also, send the info to the ‘lost pet page’ at www.wistv.com .

9.    Rethink getting that Christmas pet  -  Children often treat Christmas pets like other Christmas toys – they’ll soon grow bored or find ways to shirk their responsibilities to feed, walk, and play with their pet once the novelty wears off.  Better, make the acquisition of a pet a more formal endeavor, preceded with much emphasis on the responsibility the child is taking on.  And of course, never stop supervising – they will make mistakes or be forgetful at times.  The parent must maintain an active role in the new pet’s care.   Talk to your family veterinarian about what preventive care is needed for your new pet.  

10.  Ornaments / hooks -   I’ve listed this separately from number 7 above, as we will see ornaments and their hooks ingested on occasion.   These can be challenging to remove, often requiring endoscopy or surgery.   If your pet seems too fascinated with ornaments, hang them out of their reach or don’t hang them at all.  

11.  Other foods

            Grapes, raisins, muscadines -  In our experience, we’ve had some dogs present to the ER               after grape or raisin ingestion that haven’t had any problems, while others have                                  gone into acute kidney failure.   Some believe that only those grapes or raisins                           growing a certain mycotoxin are dangerous.  In any case, if you see your dog eat                             grapes, raisins, or muscadines, play it safe and bring them in for your vet to                                     induce vomiting, start IV fluids, and monitor kidney health. 

                       
                        Grapes can cause symptoms at 0.7 oz/kg of body weight, while raisins can cause                                   issues at 0.11oz/kg. 

            Onions and garlic - Garlic is more likely to cause oxidative injury to cells than onion,                            but both will cause problems if ingested.  It takes 5 grams of garlic per kg of body                 weight to cause destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis) in dogs.  Cats are even                                    more sensitive.   Avoid ‘garlic tablets’ in pets, and keep in mind that garlic does                             not prevent fleas.  Avoid feeding baby food containing onion powder. 

            Xylitol is an artificial sugar often found in sugarless gum and other candies.  Ingestion of                                     xylitol causes a massive insulin release in the body, leading to very low blood                             sugar.  Liver damage also occurs.  Both issues require intensive hospital care, and                              treatment attempts are not always successful.   

            Raw dough  may not only have salmonella, which can cause diarrhea in pets and humans,                      but can produce alcohol and carbon dioxide      when ingested.  These pets (usually                               dogs) will appear drunk and have an ethanol             odor to the breath.  On top of this,                                the dough expands in the stomach, leading to gastric distension and torsion                                     (‘bloat’).  Surgery is always needed for gastric torsion, and other intensive care is                                     needed for alcohol intoxication from dough fermentation.  

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