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Keeping your pets safe this season

By Jeff Douglas

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 15 - December 8, 1994

Christmas decorations and holiday treats may help make the season bright, but they can also cause problems for household pets, say experts in the Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

A few precautions can help make sure a family's holiday spirit isn't dampened by the untimely--and preventable--illness or injury of a beloved dog or cat.

Many problems occur when curious pets ingest foreign objects or toxic substances, says Kent Roberts, project leader-veterinary extension.

Puppies have been known to chew on ornaments, which can shatter into jagged shards of glass and cut their mouth. Similarly, pet-owners should avoid giving pets "presents" such as bones and toys which can break and be swallowed, obstructing the esophagus, stomach, or intestines.

Puppies and kittens are sometimes tempted to chew on Christmas-tree light cords, which can cause mouth burns or fatal shock. Even brief electric shocks can trigger an irregular heartbeat, which can cause fluid to gather in the lungs, leading to serious complications or death.

Cats are frequently attracted to tinsel, but if a cat swallows a piece, it can stimulate an accordian-like folding of the intestines--a life-threatening condition.

Ornaments and tinsel should be kept out of a pet's reach, when possible, and pet-owners should watch their animals closely, Roberts says.

A number of holiday plants and treats also pose danger for animals, says Dennis Blodgett, a veterinary toxicologist.

Chocolate, for example, contains a caffeine-like substance which is very dangerous for dogs. Two squares of baking chocolate, or just over a pound of milk chocolate, can kill a 20-pound dog, according to Blodget.

Some common Christmas plants are also dangerous. Ingesting mistletoe can cause symptoms ranging from an upset stomach to death, depending upon the amount consumed and the size of the animal. Other dangerous plants include holly berries and Jerusalem cherries. Poinsettias usually only produce mild clinical signs and should generally be considered non-toxic.

Dogs and cats should be kept away from the water in Christmas-tree stands, says Blodgett, since it contains turpentine-like compounds which are dangerous for both dogs and cats, but particularly lethal for cats. Placing a physical barrier such as a screen or tree skirt is the best preventive measure that can be taken.