The holidays are usually a time of merriment and joy for celebrants, but they can also be a season fraught with hazards and dangers for furry friends. Choosing a pet as a gift, decorating homes and tables, and sharing certain foods with animals can all cause trouble if owners aren’t mindful or fail to take precautions to avoid hazards.

Holiday plants

Although pets who ingest pine needles might experience vomiting, there are plants that pose more serious threats. As pretty as they are, poinsettias are mildly toxic if cats and dogs consume them, so it is important to keep them out of reach. “Mistletoe, holly and lilies can also be toxic,” said Dr. Bailey Pietsch, one of the veterinarian teammates at Greendale Village Vet. “Signs your pet consumed a toxic plant may include excessive salivating, vomiting and diarrhea. If a pet presents those symptoms, it is extremely important to take the pet for emergency care, because those poisons could cause a pet’s kidneys to shut down.”

Dangers lurk in plain sight

Prettily wrapped gifts under the tree can be very enticing for pets. Cats, and juvenile dogs in particular, love to nibble on bows and ribbons. However, they don’t always pass through the digestive system, Pietsch explained. When that happens, the stringy filaments can get bunched up in the digestive system and cause intestinal distress.

Candles, of course, need to be kept in places where swished tails won’t knock them over, but there is another consideration, said Pietsch. “Some pets can be very sensitive to scents,” she said, “and in fact, some scents emitted from candles can actually be toxic. You will see signs of discomfort if your pet starts behaving oddly.

“Those extra cords for the tree and electric decorations can also cause a problem for pets,” she said. Some pets are attracted to the chewy cords. “The simplest thing is to turn lights and decorations off when they’re not in use. When they are in use, just monitor them to ensure your pet won’t get electrocuted.”

Lastly, she said, is a warning to parents with young children in the home: “Be aware of where the toys are,” she said. “Not only do you want to make sure a special gift doesn’t become a chew toy on Christmas morning, you don’t want a pet to swallow any small pieces.”

Food treats

“Foods can cause real problems during the holidays,” said Pietsch. Xylitol is commonly found in sugar-free products, and it is toxic for pets. “I know a lot of people use peanut butter in fillable toys for dogs or to hide pills, but it’s very important not to try to shave off a few calories for your dog by using sugar-free products. They can cause serious illness. Likewise, it’s not unheard of for a dog to snitch some gum. Many gum products are sugar-free, so be sure to keep the purses closed and the sticks of gum out of reach.”

Chocolate is not only toxic for dogs – the darker the chocolate, the more toxic – but if an animal consumes enough of it, it can cause the heart rate to speed up and can be fatal. “It seems like everybody wants to treat our pets to scraps of people food, but a lot of foods can place a pet in peril. Anything that is fatty can be a big problem.” Fatty meats can lead to pancreatitis, and some pets could even require hospitalization for that condition. “Veggies are always a good option, with the exception of onions and garlic, which are toxic and can also be fatal for pets,” she said. “Bites of carrots are usually a big hit and are safe to eat.”

Lastly, said Pietsch, we love to give dogs bones to gnaw on. However, dogs should never have cooked bones. “They can be very dangerous, because they splinter easily,” she explained. As the dog chews, fragments can pass into the digestive system and cause punctures or intestinal blockages. “Dogs can also break their teeth from chewing on bones.”

Pets as gifts

“Perhaps the most important thing to remember is not to surprise someone with the gift of a pet, unless you have cleared it with the recipient or know with certainty the pet will be a welcome addition to a family or individual,” said Pietsch. “Pets should never be surprise gifts outside of the immediate family, such as when parents decide it is time to let their kids have a pet. People need to realize a pet gift is not a holiday thing. It’s a long-term commitment, and shelters often see a high rate of pets being gifted back to them after the holidays.”

When someone does bring a pet into the home, there are preparations to make, she said. For example, older pets’ personalities are already formed, so they may have better manners than baby or young pets. They may not have as many needs as young pets. Puppies and kittens will need a lot of attention, just like human babies, because they require a lot of monitoring and training.

New owners should prepare starter kits for the new pets. “Exactly what’s needed depends on the dog’s age,” said Pietsch, “but a basic puppy/dog kit might include toys such as rope pulls, Kongs, squeakies or balls; crates; leashes or harnesses; and collars.” She strongly advises against metal prong or shock collars that not only cause pain to dogs but actually teach the animal to fear the owner.

“Not all cats need collars,” she said, “but if they do have them, they need to be breakaways to keep the cats safe from misadventures.” She said cats like to play with toys, too, and they will need litter boxes. Scratching posts can also be a nice addition to the cat supplies.

Pet beds are not absolutes, but a lot of families find they help in keeping fur contained to smaller areas, and many pets find comfort in having their own sleeping areas.

New owners and very busy families should also take steps to ensure their pets are not left out in the cold for long stretches of time. “If you need to set a reminder for yourself, then do it,” said Pietsch, “but keep in mind that with the exception of arctic breeds, if it feels cold to you, it’s cold for them, too.”

She recommended pets have vests and booties or pads. “Dogs can be trained to keep the booties on,” she explained. The pads protect their paws from the salt on the roads and the subsequent dryness that can be very uncomfortable or even cause cracks and bleeding. Musher’s Secret Dog Paw Wax is a versatile product that won’t harm an animal if it licks it. “It offers protection not just from cold and salted surfaces in the winter, but it can also be used to give a dog some protection from hot surfaces in the summer.”

Kids and pets

When pets are introduced to a home with children, not only do adults need to train the pets, but they also need to teach young family members how to interact with animals. “Children need to learn how to respect animals,” said Pietsch. For example, children should not tug on an animal’s ears or tails, and they should never ride them. “Those behaviors hurt, and pets could lash out,” she said. “That’s how animals communicate.”

Some dogs, particularly adults, don’t like to have their paws touched. “It’s important to teach kids how to read pets,” she said.

Holidays are a time of great joy not just for people, but also for our pets, who often get a little extra pampering and maybe even a new toy or two. Pets pick up on the excitement they see in the young ones and in their family members, and they often make sure they aren’t left out of any commotion. “After all, they’re part of the family too, so we should ensure we keep the holidays safe for them.”

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